Lyon is the third-largest city in France - after Paris and Marseilles - and has earned its reputation as the culinary capital of Europe. Restaurants abound, varying from the celebrated chef Paul Bocuse’s luxury restaurant l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges to the humble bouchons, equally popular with tourists and the local population.
Lyon is perfectly situated to provide its foodie visitors with only the best. To the east one finds the Alpine rivers providing trout and freshwater crayfish, the winelands of Beaujalois to the north, the Rhone Valley to the south, Charolles – with its superior beef products – to the northwest and the cheeses of Auvergne to the southwest.
A visit to Bocuse’s l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges is out of the question, says my guide, a young chef at the Lyon Opera.
"It is booked months in advance and just plain unaffordable for the average tourist," he says. The closest I can get to Bocuse is Lyon’s most famous food market, Les Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse, named thus because Bocuse himself regularly goes shopping there for fresh ingredients, endorsing the quality of the produce sold at the market.
The food market is in Lyon’s third district, Lafayette, and is open every day. There are close to 60 stalls offering a variety of fresh and colourful vegetables, snails, cheeses, meat, fish, bread and sweets to name but a few. A visit to the market can keep you occupied for most of a morning.
I feasted my eyes on the Lyon sausages and tasted the bright pink praline tartlets and colourful macarons – the pride of France, made of two round meringue-based cookie shells held together by a soft filling, such as buttercream or ganache.
"The market has been in existence since 1859, but lost its popularity over the years until it was renovated and spruced up in 2006 when Bocuse agreed to link his name to it," says our Guide.
The food traders in the market can tell you everything about their products and always seem ready for a chat, or to pose for a picture when not too busy.
Surrounded by food for most of the morning, one tends to get hungry. It was almost time for our lunch appointment with friends at Cuisine Dépendances Acte II in Rûe de la Charité.
I opt for a cauliflower crème brûlée with gingerbread crumbs and boiled quail eggs for a starter (fantastic, but very rich) followed by steak Bavette and a generous portion of ratatouille. Dessert is a semolina pudding with a mango and guava compote.
Between the five of us the meal cost R2600 – to get over the shock (which was worth every hard-earned euro) we walked the few kilometres back home.
Cuisine Dépendances Acte II was chic and the food excellent, but a bit too grand for my taste. To my mind the bouchons of Lyon are much more pleasant. More relaxed atmosphere and easy, simple food in the centuries-old tradition of the city.
"Bouchons are similar to bistros, but the menus are even more limited," explains our guide. "Some have tablecloths and others don’t. Sometimes you don’t get clean cutlery for the different courses, but the atmosphere and food makes you forget about all that.
"Most bouchons are family businesses and the majority of chefs are women cooking from recipes passed from generation to generation over many years. The meals are reasonably priced and one can choose between a set menu or single plates."
But be warned, he adds, the food is certainly no haute cuisine – it can be rather fatty and included huge meat portions.
A day later we make ourselves at home at Bouchon Les Lyonnais in Rûe de Bombarde. It’s convivial, with wooden tables, red painted walls hanged with portraits and other decorations. We sit outside; it is a wonderful summer evening, and just about dusk.
"Now you will taste real Lyonnese food! What about some tripe, one of the local delicacies?" the young guide shoots me a friendly – or is it amused - look. I ignore the suggestion and focus on the other local delights. There is duck paté, Lyonnese sausage, roasted pork, fish soufflé with rice pilaf and cream of lobster soup.
We decide to take on a menu at €24 per person and start with Salade Lyonnaise (croutons, ham and poached egg) and toasted brioche topped with a thick slice of boiled Lyonnese sausage with pistachio nuts.
The main dish is lamb chops with garlic and rosemary, potatoes, courgettes and tomato. Homely. Lovely. We have a cosy dinner in the warm, European early evening air. The portions are huge.
Around us the cobbled street corner is abuzz with people strolling back from their visits to the cathedral Notre Dame de Fourviere which towers above the city, looking for sidewalk tables to have a glass of wine and a chat.
We have another glass of wine as well; this is France and this is Lyon. The food capital of Europe. Who wants to go home now?
We order strawberries and cream topped with spicy biscuit crumbs and crème brûlée for dessert. We linger and enjoy Lyon for the last time, because tomorrow England calls.
If you go:
- Lyon is easy to reach by train or plane from Paris, Marseille, Genève, London or Frankfurt.
- The city has two train stations: Part-Dieu and Perrache, with a third station at the Saint Exupéry airport just outside the city. The airport sees approximately seven million travellers per annum and connects to flights to 100 local and international destinations.
- Trains leave for Paris (two-hour journey) and to Lille (three hours) every 30 minutes, and there is a Eurostar connection to London (five hours).
- In Lyon it is easy to get around on the underground metro train service, the trams, buses, cable cars and the 4000-odd rented bicycles that are available around every corner in the city.