There is French cuisine, and then there is Lyonnaise cuisine. From joyous bouchons (taverns) where silk workers once gathered over robust dishes, to hushed Michelin- starred restaurants where truffle-studded pedigree chickens are slowly poached in a blown-up pig’s bladder, this city built around the Rhône and Saône rivers treats each meal with particular reverence. Far from being stuck in the past, it has attracted a new generation of bistro chefs – many from as far afield as Japan – who are inventing a lighter style of dishes based on the abundant local produce and freshwater fish.
Lyon established its reputation as a food mecca during the 1930s, earning the title “world capital of gastronomy” from the respected French food critic Curnonsky. Its local cuisine flourished in the nineteenth century thanks to the mères lyonnaises, ‘mothers’ who dreamed up elaborate dishes for bourgeois families. When the aristocracy could no longer afford them, these mères went on to open their own restaurants: La Mère Brazier, mentor to the much-vaunted Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse, was the first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars each for two restaurants.
At the same time, bouchons began catering to the local silk workers and many travellers who passed through the city, helping spread its culinary reputation. As silk- making died out, Lyon decided to capitalise on its second strength, holding food fairs that highlighted the region’s products. These days the city is still a food shopper’s paradise: the Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse showcases the biggest names in charcuterie, cheese and pastries, while each neighbourhood retains local food shops that uphold tradition or push the boundaries, perhaps bringing a Japanese touch to French pastries or lacing foie gras with chocolate and orange.