When you are born in Lyon, gastronomy is a part of your DNA. There is no way to escape it. And don’t be afraid of the word. As the emblematic French chef Régis Marcon told me, “Gastronomy does not mean dishes for wealthy people or … complex meals. It can be a sandwich or a fine pizza. The point is to offer high-quality products, experience what you eat, and share it with others,” In that respect, Lyon is deservedly known as the world capital of gastronomy.
It is a label created by one of the most famous food critics in France. In the early 19th century, the French writer Maurice Edmond Sailland, better known by his nickname Curnonsky, published a series of regional guidebooks to France. In the Lyon edition of 1925, he wrote, “We want to tell, to write, to claim, without hesitation, that Lyon is the world’s gastronomic capital.”
The title stuck. I grew up in Lyon. It is a place where the cuisine tells its history. That should come as no surprise because Lyon has been a food destination for, well, almost forever.
A pork hotspot since Gallo-Roman times
If there is something you can’t miss in Lyon, it is the crazy range of sausages. I’m sorry to say vegetarians and Muslims will find Lyon a tough city, but if you eat pork, welcome to heaven.
Lyon’s fame regarding sausages and ham goes back to the time of Cleopatra, around 50 B.C.E., “Savoy and ham from Lyon have, from all times, enjoyed a high reputation. They were already sent to Rome under Caesar’s reign,” said the food critic Cochard in his 1826 book, Guide to Lyon for Travelers and Amateurs. By the Middle Ages, Lyon began to host big fairs, and food, especially pork, played an important role in those fairs.
In Lyon today, you can lose yourself in rosette de Lyon, Jésus de Lyon, and andouillette, among many other pork delicacies. I suggest you try one iconic dish, which has been popular since the 19th century, saucisson chaud. It’s a kind of hot savoy, made of minced, seasoned pork breast and shoulder, and it almost melts in your mouth. What a shame that it was not invented in time for Cleopatra and Caesar.
Since the Industrial Revolution, Lyon has been divided between the wealthy bourgeois class and the working class. Variations of saucisson chaud reflect that separation. For example, cervelas pistaché or truffé (a hot savoy with pistachio or truffles) is traditionally a luxury dish. One that was eaten year round by rich people but only on special occasions like Christmas by the working class. Then there is the more basic version, saucisson chaud. It doesn’t have any fancy added ingredients and was traditionally eaten by commoners almost every day.
Social divisions still exist, albeit to a lesser extent than in the Middle Ages, and both versions of the sausage are easily found throughout the city.
There is a lot of debate over the name saucisson chaud. In the 1990s culinary books tended to offer two names, cervelas (savoy) and salami (saucisson) for the simpler version. Today most people drop the distinction and just call it saucisson chaud. Whatever the name, remember it means you’re going to have a great time eating—in Lyon and only in Lyon.
Because even if this dish is a hit in this French city, it is purely a local phenomenon. These days, I live in Paris. A few months after I moved, I craved a taste of home; I needed saucisson chaud. I went to the nearest market in Paris and asked for my beloved delicacy. I can still remember the look the seller’s face as he gave me his answer: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I thought the dish might be a bit too fancy for that market, so I went to other markets and to butcher shops. But I got the same reaction everywhere. People stared at me as if I were a lunatic.
A cuisine shaped by its working-class origins
Some of the best places to enjoy saucisson chaud are in joints called bouchons. But what are these places? Secret fraternities? Exclusive clubs? No, not at all. Bouchons are at the heart of Lyon’s cuisine.
The strange name comes from cabaretiers, 16th-century innkeepers who, by royal decree, were permitted to serve wine with food in basic restaurants to travelers and workers. The innkeepers used to attract the attention of customers by hanging tree branches on the door, and bouchon comes from a word for a bundle of branches.
Walking through the streets of Lyon today, you won’t see branches anymore, but you will see many—maybe too many—restaurants with bouchon in their name. Since 1997, it has been an official label. For a restaurant to be deemed an official bouchon, it must pass a series of tests set by Les Bouchons Lyonnais. About 40 restaurants boast the certification, but many uncertified restaurants serve in the same style.
So how to find an authentic one? You can check Les Bouchons Lyonnais, or you can scrutinize the restaurants’ logo. The official ones depict a man with a red nose. Yes, he is drunk, and his name is Gnafron. Think of him as Lyon’s answer to Mr. Punch in a Punch and Judy show. Wherever you go to eat, the food will be simple, homemade, and tasty and made using typical Lyonnais recipes. While pork is the star in Lyon, there are many other dishes to try too.
Try some a tablier de sapeur (tripe in breadcrumbs, or literally, fireman’s apron), which is made from gras-double, the membrane of the rumen, the first part of a cow’s stomach. The gras-double is boiled, then marinated in white wine before it is covered in breadcrumbs and fried. I’m not going to lie; Lyonnais cuisine is not for the faint-hearted.
This dish was formerly known as tablier de Gnafron, in tribute to the local marionette, but Maréchal de Castellane, a former military governor in Lyon, helped rename it around 1850. He loved this dish, and because he had the habit of wearing a leather apron and he had been an engineer in the military company known as Sapeur du Génie, the name tablier de sapeur stuck to this dish. Nearly two centuries later, it is still one of the most popular dishes to order in bouchons throughout Lyon.
When you visit a bouchon, you should end your meal with a local cheese or a dessert or both. I suggest that you try a faisselle cream cheese called cervelle de canut. No doubt it will stimulate your palate, as it is mixed with garlic, onion, oil, vinegar, chives, and aromatic herbs. The literal translation, “silk weaver’s brains” might make you want to run away, but don’t worry: There are no brains in this dish; the cheese in it has a mushy white appearance, which looks a little like a brain, and in Lyon, silk workers were called canuts, low-paid laborers for whom this simple and cheap concoction often was the main meal of the day.
Another Lyonnais dish was also very popular with the canuts, and it can be considered the father of the Sunday brunch. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to mâchon Lyonnais. This is more than a dish, more than a meal; this refers to a way of life. And again, it’s rooted in the life of the silk workers.
The noun mâchon comes from the verb mâchonner (to chew). During the time of the canuts, mâchons were generally made of leftovers in cabaretiers’ inns, not in fancy restaurants. Over time, this concept became more and more popular. Mâchons were served at breakfast, often along with other dishes, like cervelle de canuts, and the whole lot was washed down with a bottle of Beaujolais or a Côte du Rhône.
“Mâchon Lyonnais is like the early Mass for the real Lyonnais. It cements the bonds between people, because, in Lyon, we don’t know each other well until we share a meal,” said Bruno Benoît, a French historian and an expert on Lyon.
Today mâchon does not appear on the Lyonnais’ breakfast table, but if you want a taste of this part of Lyon’s history, head to Chez Georges. Alternatively, visit Du Côté du Vivarais, Au Poêlon d’Or or Au Café du Peintre in the city’s Second and Sixth arrondissements or visit Les Halles Paul Bocuse. We’ll talk about Bocuse a bit more, but before we celebrate him, let’s celebrate women.
A cuisine refined by legendary women: les mères
Female chefs are rare in France. Michelin-starred ones are even rarer. Not a single female chef was featured in the 2018 Michelin Guide. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, things were quite different in Lyon.
In 1933, Eugénie Brazier became the first woman to earn three Michelin stars at both her restaurants, namely La Mère Brazier on rue Royale and at Col de la Luère, which is in the countryside. Her fine cuisine attracted a clientele including Charles de Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and Marlene Dietrich. Brazier belonged to a generation of women called Les mères Lyonnaise (the Lyonnaise mothers).
The phenomenon started in the 18th century. That was when talented female cooks in Lyon first became identified as mères. This was a reference to the home-style cuisine they made. The national and international legend really began with La mère Filloux. Her recipes went on to inspire the cuisine of the greatest cooks of the region.
It was a dish created by Filloux that first made Brazier famous 100 years later. Fond d’artichaut au foie gras (artichoke bottoms with foie gras) is a dish Brazier adapted from Filloux. Brazier served the artichoke cold instead of hot to reveal all the flavor of the foie gras. Good news for us: We can still taste this dish at her restaurant, which is now run by Mathieu Viannay, a two-Michelin-starred chef.
All the mères had something in common. They learned the art of cuisine as cooks for wealthy families. “Even if they came from working-class families, they used luxury products to rock traditional dishes,” said the French gastronomy historian and novelist Michèle Barrière. These mothers, she said, were the real pioneers who gave rise to gastronomy.
In the same year that Brazier’s two restaurants got their three stars, another of Lyon’s mothers, Marie Bourgeois, known as La mère Bourgeois, also received three stars. Among her creations was a dessert called glace aux pralines roses (pink praline ice cream). This is not a popular dessert in Lyon today, but it influenced a more recent success, pink praline pie.
Pink praline pie is heavenly, but it is a bit of a mystery too. For years, in Lyon and around the city, pastry chefs crafted their versions of pink praline brioche. For instance, I come from a small town called Neuville-sur-Saône, less than 10 miles from Lyon, and without any hint of modesty, I can declare that Pogne de Neuville is one of the best desserts in the world. However, these kinds of praline pies had never been featured in recipe books or food histories of Lyon. But 10 or 15 years ago, praline pies started to be described as typical Lyonnais desserts in serious food publications. Restaurants and bakeries picked up on it all over Lyon. So even if Bourgeois never dreamed up this enigmatic modern dessert pie, her special ice cream led the way to the modern day hit.
The “Pope of French cuisine,” Paul Bocuse
In 1946, Brazier welcomed at her Col de la Luère restaurant a new employee, Bocuse, then 20, who would go on to be called the “cook of the century” by the Gault et Millau guide in 1989 and the “chef of the century” by the Culinary Institute of America in 2011. He is like a god to us Lyonnais.
Even though the grand master and legend died on Jan. 20, 2018, his legacy lives on. His two colorful restaurants in Collonges-au-Mont d’Or, just three miles from Lyon, have received three Michelin stars every year, without interruption, since 1965. Bocuse liked to describe his style as “traditional, classic cuisine,” with “butter, cream, and wine.” In that respect, his cooking was a tribute to one of the city’s gastronomic mothers, Brazier.
Bocuse loved to promote and revisit traditions, but he was also a rule breaker. One of his most iconic dishes, volaille de bresse en vessie (chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder), was created by adapting a cooking method Brazier pioneered long before him.
One of her most famous dishes is poularde en demi-deuil (half-mourning fattened chicken). She chose this awkward name to refer to the slices of black truffles she slipped under the chicken’s skin before cooking. The black and white contrast made her think of mourning clothes. This chicken is cooked inside a pig’s bladder, and it was this method Bocuse adapted. You may be wondering, how can a chicken fit into such an intimate casing? A bladder is a very flexible membrane, and it’s possible to seal a whole chicken inside it.
Bocuse is the chef who expanded the horizons for French gastronomy. He also turned his name into a successful brand and a business. In 1994 he opened other restaurants. These were affordable bistro-style places for ordinary people, and they had his name above the door. Brasserie de l’Ouest in Lyon’s Ninth Arrondissement, on the Saône River, is one of my favorites.
Today many chefs add their names to fast-food chains and frozen food brands. For better or worse, Bocuse was the one who initiated the movement in France. He left his 20 restaurants, culinary school and 100 million euro empire to his two children and four grandchildren. He also gave international fame to French gastronomy and, most of all, cemented Lyon’s legacy in the eyes of the world.