Making crepes at a public market in Lyon. photos by Jackie Stevenson.
Studying Gastronomy in Lyon, France’s Culinary Capital
It was 8:30 in the morning and I was standing in an overflow of sounds, smells, and sights, flanked by bouquets of daisies on my right and ox tongues on my left.
The public market in Lyon, France is a staple of everyday life for its residents, and an increasingly popular draw for visitors who want to see where Lyon’s rich culinary traditions truly begin.
Stretching along the banks of the Saone, the so-called 'other river' in Lyon that runs parallel to the Rhone, the market offers fresh produce, meats, flowers, cheese, honey, oils, and other foods, as well as books and arts and crafts.
It's also one of the most congested areas of Lyon on a Sunday, as I discovered. People from all walks of life pack onto the sidewalks to view or sell wares, and the spectacle is something to behold.
Sellers try to outdo their counterparts with shouts regarding their succulent chickens roasting on spits and soft cheeses mellowing in the summer sun. Canvas bags filled with purchases seem to fly from one hand to another, and baskets of fruits and vegetables overflow onto small, folding tables.
Still, despite the frenzy, it’s likely that the real stars of the show – Lyon’s renowned cadre of chefs, restaurateurs, and gourmet shop owners – have already come and gone, arriving at dawn to take their pick of the freshest ingredients and cart them back to some of the finest restaurants in Europe.
Eating the View
Lyon, the largest city in the Rhone-Alpes region, has long been known as the gastronomic capital of France, but it’s also an old city in the midst of a rebirth that is renewing interest in its culinary legacy. Geographically, it’s characterized not only by its two rivers, but also
Tomatoes to die for at the Lyon Public Market. photos by Jackie Stevenson.
by two hills. One, the locals say, is where they pray: La Fourviere, home of the towering Fourviere Basilica. The other peak is known as a place of work, as it has long been home of Lyon’s silk mills. Residents refer to it less often with a name, and more often with a sound: biston-clac, bonk! – the sound the weaving machines once made well into the night.
The entire city is small enough to tour easily over the course of a few days. Vieux Lyon, the old city and home to both Fourviere and the weekly public markets, is in the heart of the city and peppered with eateries ranging from bouchons – small, traditional bistros – to gourmet restaurants known as Les Grandes Tables. Not far is Place Bellecour, a bustling area of commerce.
Just a short bus trip away on the banks of the Rhone is perhaps the most notable sign of a new chapter in Lyon’s history, La Cite Internationale, an architectural marvel designed by architect Renzo Piano, who also lent his talents to the New York Times building on 42nd Street in Manhattan and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
La Cite Internationale is distinctly modern in sharp contrast to its traditional French surroundings, but doesn’t sacrifice a strong focus on fine dining. The open-air complex includes hotels, convention space, apartments, casinos, shops, museums, and restaurants offering a global kind of fare, from Spanish to Italian to West African.
Its centerpiece is Lyon’s Contemporary Museum of Art, and its backdrop is Parc Tete D'or (Golden Head Park), a 250-acre public park that includes a botanical garden, a zoo, a lake, and dozens of other attractions for families (including hand-dipped candy apples and hand-poured crepes with steaming chocolate filling).
The White Tablecloth Experience
All of this is nestled between the Alps and the region of Provence, with the region of Burgundy to the north, creating a collision of flavors and an explosive gastronomic experience.
You never know who you'll meet on the streets of Lyon.
Consider, for instance, a Rhone-Alpes Tasting Dinner; a sampling of some of the region's best dishes made or inspired by some of its most well-known establishments. These tastings can be found via the Lyon Office of Tourism throughout the year, along with culinary workshops and cooking classes.
Typically, a five-course meal is served, perhaps beginning with one of Lyon's signature dishes, quenelles, like those made by Maison Giraudet.
Giraudet is a gourmet purveyor that creates and sells quenelles, soups, and sauces; it's based in Lyon, with locations in Paris and Bourg-en-Bresse. As the story goes, Giraudet adapted the quenelle recipe from Joseph Moyne, who invented the dish in 1880 by combining semolina, butter, flour, eggs, and fish into a thick dough, and creating oval-shaped loaves using a two-spoon technique. Giraudet makes quenelles with chicken, truffles, crawfish, pike, and other ingredients, and pairs them with cream sauces that are also available canned in gourmet shops across Europe and online.
White or black quenelles could be served, the latter colored with squid ink, and both could be paired with a local vintage such Brouilly: Domaine de Bel Air, a light, sweet Beaujolais, for which the region is famous. Beaujolais Nouveau is the most well-known of the Rhone-Alpes wines, but others include Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, and Saint-Amour.
No meal in Lyon is complete without a cheese course, and a sampling of St. Marcellin Etoile du Vercors made by cheesemakers Fromageries L'etoile is a likely addition to any table in the city. It's a soft, light, creamy cloud of cheese that’s only recently made its debut outside of France; it's being marketed in the U.S and the U.K under the name Etoile du Sud.
Dessert could welcome a creation by another acclaimed name in Lyon – the chocolatier Seve, which specializes in pastry, macaroons and praline tarts. The tart – sweet, sticky, and buttery – pairs well with a Beaujolais Villages: Daniel Bulliat, a cherry-red wine with hints of blackcurrant and strawberry.
Beyond wine, though, even Lyon's water has some cache. Parot mineral water, collected from an independent, family-owned spring, has a light fizz and a balanced mineral content that complements any type of meal, and that some believe has positive effects on health and well-being.
Many of Lyon’s signature foods, wines, and sundries can be found across the city in stores, restaurants, and heaped onto tables at the public market, creating countless opportunities to weave cuisine into the Lyonnaise experience.
It’s even possible that the same herbs I bent down to smell or the tomatoes I gave a furtive squeeze in the early morning hours on the banks of the Saone made their way to my dinner plate that night. Proving that the culinary heritage of Lyon permeates every aspect of life – from the hills of work and worship, to the riverbanks best for business, and finally to the tables, crowned with crusty baguettes and buoyant conversation.