Over the past few years, the once insalubrious neighbourhood of Croix-Rousse has become a hub of creativity for young designers and artists, giving rise to funky coffee shops and forward-looking food. Starting just north of place des Terreaux, which is home to the seventeenth-century Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), you’ll build calf muscles as you make your way up steep staircases leading to the Plateau de la Croix-Rousse, where a lively food market takes place six days a week. Locals are familiar with a network of secret passageways called traboules, which run through the former workshops, creating a direct path across the maze-like streets.
Living and working conditions were once so bad here that they led to a series of workers’ uprisings starting in 1831, but today many of the high-ceilinged ateliers have been reborn as chic lofts, and a stroll in any direction will lead to boutiques selling handmade jewellery, clothing by up-and-coming designers or high-quality ceramics.
The creative atmosphere and relatively inexpensive rent makes this a natural place for modern bistros, cafés and food shops to thrive. As you walk up the hill, or pentes, you might stop for some of the best coffee in town and taste Japanese-inspired French pastries, while the plateau is where locals go to stock up on regional produce at affordable prices or visit the eclectic shops in and around the Grande Rue de la Croix- Rousse. Annexed by the city in 1852, the Croix-Rousse in many ways remains a village with its own atmosphere, beloved by residents and little known even to many Lyonnaise.
Founded by Sadry-Alexandre Abidi and Rosamund Morris James, who met in New Zealand, this roaster and café seating barely 15 indoors has acquired a nationwide reputation among coffee geeks. Like many others of its ilk, Mokxa seeks out the finest beans either directly from the producers or at auctions in coffee-producing countries and ensures that the farmers are fairly compensated. The difference lies in the owners’ insistence on freshness: they roast the beans once a week in small batches and ship them out the next day, with a plea that they be consumed within a month.
Abidi and James have played a key role in changing the image of this drink from something that provides a quick boost, often alongside a cigarette, to a rewarding experience in itself. Besides introducing their mostly French clientele to a more concentrated and complex espresso, they have encouraged them to try more gentle methods of extraction such as the V60 dripper and the Aeropress. Though the emphasis here is always on coffee, many regulars also indulge in the Anglo-style cakes, with the layered carrot cake being the clear favourite.
France’s third-largest city is home to a number of open-air food markets, including the famously picturesque Marché Saint-Antoine along the banks of the Saône, and the afternoon farmers market in Place Carnot. More down-to-earth, with clothing vendors on one side of the boulevard and food stalls on the other, the sprawling Croix-Rousse market is known to serious food lovers for its vast selection of goods, no-nonsense atmosphere and reasonable prices. On Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it has up to 95 vendors, while a smaller market takes place on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Given that Lyon is surrounded by fertile land, fresh produce plays a starring role here. Stands labelled “producteur” sell vegetables and fruit from their own farms, and even in winter the harvest is generous, inspiring many of the neighbourhood’s young bistro chefs to experiment with knobbly roots and unfamiliar greens. It wouldn’t be Lyon without plenty of sausages dangling from hooks and pâtés cloaked in buttery pastry, and there are some impressive fish stands where savvy shoppers look for the local freshwater catch. But it’s not all about Lyonnaise cuisine: stalls selling homemade Indian and Moroccan dishes also have their loyal followers.
Akira Nishigaki, chef of the popular modern bistro L’Ourson qui Boît, recently opened this bright pâtisserie annexe with a glassed-in kitchen and a small display case of freshly made cakes. Just as with his bistro cooking, the pastries here are French with a hint of Japan, and change with the seasons. In charge of the kitchen is pastry chef Kyoko Futiyama, who came to Lyon from Tokyo to perfect her craft and never left.
Everything is made on the premises, and some specialities, such as the galette des rois (king’s cake) with a green tea and almond filling, or the bugnes (angel wings) sprinkled with icing sugar and matcha powder, will appear for only a short period each year. If certain cakes remain true to the original French recipe, many draw on flavours such as yuzu, sesame seeds and red bean, which is the real appeal of this shop. Fans of berries will love the tartlet with a green tea and almond filling, while lemon tart aficionados will not want to miss the yuzu variation. A classic is the rolled green tea sponge cake with mascarpone filling and a little red bean paste in the centre: a perfect meeting of two culinary cultures.
American-born Lucy Vanel long ago adopted Lyonnaise culture and cuisine, writing the successful food blog Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook before launching cooking classes in 2007. In 2012 she opened the Plum Lyon teaching kitchen in a former bakery on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse, where she also lives and rents out a holiday studio. On a long marble slab that once belonged to the bakery and is now the centrepiece of her kitchen, she teaches classes on local and French cuisine as well as pastry.
Cooking classes begin with a stroll through the Croix-Rousse food market, where Vanel decides on the menu only once she has seen what is available, and everyone has agreed on the dishes. In the afternoon, the group prepares authentic French dishes under Vanel’s gentle and patient guidance, before enjoying the results of their efforts. Typical of her style are hokkaido squash cream soup, guinea hen stuffed with hedgehog mushrooms and a bourdaloue tart made with pear and almond.
Pastry workshops focus on French classics such as croissants, macarons, variations on choux pastries including éclairs and religieuses and, in season, a stunning strawberry cake called a fraisier. These classes fill up, so it’s best to book ahead.