Lyon, France – Part 1 Gastronomic Capital of the World

Travel in France has held much intrigue for us. While we have enjoyed many of the historic cities across this beautiful country, the city proclaimed as the Gastronomic Capital of the World greatly appealed to us! Located roughly 300 miles (480 km) southeast of Paris, it is the 2nd largest city in the country with over 480,000 residents. It’s easy to hop the TGV, a high-speed train, and arrive in Lyon in under 2 hours for $61Euro/$70US. Trains leave from Gare-de-Lyon in Paris several times a day (every half hour), or fly in to Charles de Gaul Airport (CDG) and catch the train directly to Lyon from there!

My traveling partner, David, preparing to board the TGV (high-speed train).

Significant History of Lyon

Founded in 43BC, Lyon was originally the Roman colony Lugdunum which is derived from the name for the Celtic God of Light. It became the main city and capital of Gaul for over 3 centuries due to its navigable road system, as well as its unique position at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Historically, here are some of the highlights of this great city:

  • Lyon was the center for the production and trade of silk (1466), and the invention of the Jacquard loom (1801). The silk industry accounted for over 75% of the city’s industrial activity with over 100,000 looms in operation in 1870. Remnants of this beautiful tradition still continue today.
  • Lyon was known as the European capital of printing. The industry first came to the city in 1472, with printing shops lining the street of Rue Mercière.  Lyon produced books in many languages ranging from its native French to Greek, Latin, Italian, Hebrew, and Spanish. It quickly became one of the most important centers of print production in all of Europe.
  • The Cinematograph (1892), a motion picture film camera which also served as a film projector and printer was invented and patented by Lèon Bouly. In need of money money, he sold the rights to the Lumière Brothers who patented their own version in 1895. Visit Lyon in October, and experience the annual Lumière Festival with 400 screenings of films through cinema history. Be sure to visit the Musée Lumière for a detailed history of early moving pictures.

  • The Guignol hand puppet (nicknamed after a silk worker) was invented by Laurent Mourguet (1808), and has become known as one of the most emblematic figures of Lyon.
  • Outstanding examples of architecture exist throughout the city – much of which is built on top of Roman ruins. You can find buildings made in the styles of Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance, and even find traboules – the hidden passageways (some dating from the 4th century) used by the silk runners to move quickly from their workshops to the textile merchants. Equally as exciting is the modern and very progressive architecture in Lyon !!

It’s no surprise that this unique city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization as having a special cultural or physical significance, in 1998.

Significance as the World Food Capital

History aside, the real reason for our visit was to explore Lyon’s significance as the “gastronomic capital of the world”. While some may doubt this proclamation, consider the following:

  • The Lyonnaise silk workers, called canuts, who finished their long shifts around mid-morning would stop by local bars to fill up on a heavy meal – this traditional morning meal became known as the Mâchon, and consisted of cured meats, pâté, sausages, and cheese. A Mâchon can still be enjoyed at local eateries.
  • ‘Les Mères Lyonnaises” or “Mothers of Lyonnaise” developed much of the city’s culinary traditions. Originally women of modest means who cooked for middle-class households, les Mères started their own restaurants and Bouchons in the mid-18th century, serving simple yet delicious meals to everyone from the silk workers to the bourgeois.    

Rustic interior with wood beam ceilings decorate a Bouchon. The daily menu is posted on a chalkboard or found on the table.

  • Eugénie Brazier, 38 year old chef-owner of two establishments, La Mère Brazier and Col de la Luère, solidified Lyon’s culinary identity in 1933 by becoming the first French chef to earn three Michelin stars for two restaurants at the same time (6 stars total). Her renowned cooking attracted famous clientele including Charles de Gaulle and Marlene Dietrich. Her two restaurants held six Michelin stars for nearly 30 years. She is known for training many of the local chefs including Paul Bocuse, the ‘father’ of nouvelle (modern) French cuisine.
  • Maurice Sailland aka Curnonsky, dubbed the Prince of Gastronomy, was the most celebrated writer on gastronomy in France in the 20th Century, and ghost-wrote over 65 books and thousands of newspaper columns. He is often considered the inventor of gastronomic motor-tourism popularized by Michelin, though he could not drive himself. Curnonsky supported La Mere Brazier’s work and declared Lyon as the Gastronomic Capital of the World in 1935.

Currently, Lyon has over 1500 eateries from which to choose, 13 of which carry Michelin ratings – the most restaurants per capita than any other city in France. Typical Lyonnaise cuisine features sausages, duck pâté, and roast pork – dishes which are quite fatty and oriented around meat. The ‘Bouchon’ restaurant features these ‘Lyonnaise-style’ dishes made with regional ingredients, and served alongside local wine. Two of France’s best-known wine regions are located near the city – the Beaujolais region and the Côtes du Rhône.  A typical meal at the Bouchon starts with an Apéritif, usually alcoholic drink to stimulate the palate – Kir, a drink made from dry white wine and crème de cassis, is customary. A set menu usually written on a chalkboard displays choices of an Entrée (starter or appetizer), Plat (main dish), Fromage (cheese), and Dessert.

Terrine is a traditional French dish composed of delicious layers of coarsely chopped meats, seafood or vegetables packed into a rectangular dish.

The Lyonnaise Entrée (Starter) typically includes pickled vegetable salads, country-style terrine (chopped meats) or paté option, cooked sausage flavored with truffle or pistachio, or Salade Lyonnaise – frisée greens, homemade croutons, thick-cooked bacon and a poached or soft egg.

The Plat (Main Dish) options with meat or fish might consist of Black Pudding (blood sausage), Kidneys, Red Mullet Dumplings (fish), Quenelle ( a dumpling made of breadcrumbs, butter, eggs and flavored with meat or fish served in a cream or tomato based sauce), Pork Cheek, or a Pavé de Boeuf (steak).

Fromage/Cheese offered will often feature local specialties such as Fromage Blanc – a creamy whipped cheese with garlic, shallots, minced herbs, olive oil, and vinegar.Cheese offered will often feature local specialties such as Fromage Blanc – a creamy whipped cheese with garlic, shallots, minced herbs, olive oil, and vinegar.

Quenelle (soft dumpling) found on the menu at Cafe du Soleil.

Dessert – options like Tarte aux Pommes (Apple Tart), Gâteau de Pralines Roses (cake with candied pink almonds/sauce), Île Flottante (soft cooked ‘floating island’ meringue in a rich vanilla custard sauce), or Baba au Rhum (sponge cake soaked in rum sauce).

Paul Bocuse’s presence is deeply rooted in this city. His likeness is painted on the building across the street from Les Halles Lyon-Paul Bocuse.

When visiting Lyon, you cannot miss the opportunity to visit the incredible indoor food market, Les Halles Lyon-Paul Bocuse, named after the ‘father’ of Lyon cooking and famous Michelin Chef. With nearly 5 dozen food stalls selling countless gourmet delicacies, you will be overwhelmed by the options. Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., you can start with le petit déjeuner (breakfast) of a fresh baked pastry and coffee or at midday, sit down for a light lunch with a glass of wine and salad, or simply purchase a wheel of creamy St. Marcellin cheese to take home for dinner. Storefronts include Florists, Fromagers (cheese artisans), Boulangers (breadmakers), Pâtissiers (pastry cooks), Chocolatiers, Bouchers (butchers), Charcutiers (cured meats), Poissonniers (fish vendor), Cafés, Produce, and Vins/Spiritueux (wines/spirits). Some of our favorite shops here are Chocolat Bouillet, Fromagerie MONS, and Chez les Gones (restaurant).

Link: Les Halles Lyon-Paul Bocuse

In our next post, Lyon, France – Part 2, we will continue to share highlights of our travel experiences in the City of Lights including an excerpt from a culinary class at Plum Lyon Cooking School, review of our 10 course lunch at Michelin-starred Restaurant, Prairial, recommendation for a personal tour scheduled through Lyon City Greeters, a personal tip on where to buy a lovely silk scarf, and a recipe for making Candied Pink Praline Tart inspired by our visit! Stay tuned!