The Saône is rushing fast beneath Pont Bonaparte. Unseasonal rains have swollen the river, as it rushes headlong towards its confluence with the Rhône a few kilometres downstream. Ahead of me lies the ornate hilltop abbey of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Locals call it ‘the hill that prays’; while to the north the old silk-weaving district of Croix-Rousse is ‘the hill that works’.
But I haven’t come to Lyon to pray or work. Rather, to eat.
For the second-largest city in France punches above its weight when it comes to culinary prowess, and much of the credit for its long culinary heritage goes to the trade and commerce that has long flowed upon these two rivers rushing south towards the Mediterranean.
That stroke of geographical good fortune also landed Lyon in the centre of rich agricultural lands. To the west the hills of Auvergne and the Ardeche are home to rich fruit orchards, while the ever-present winds allowed early farmers to dry the area’s famous charcuterie. To the north and south, vineyards grace the hills of Beaujolais and the Rhône valley, and wine has been made here since Roman times. Not far from the city Bresse is famous for producing the finest – and most expensive – poultry in all of France.
All of which feeds into Lyon’s dynamic culinary scene, where regional produce takes pride of place everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants to local bistros. In the backstreets near Place des Jacobins I find my first taste at Café Terroir, where our meal begins with a rustic board of cured saucisse d’Lyon and a glass of Beaujolais; and ends with roughly-chopped steak tartare of Charolais beef, and Alpine cheese.
But for a true taste of the region’s best produce; I take a stroll down Cours Lafayette to where a six-story mural of acclaimed Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse gazes down at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse.
“The market first opened in 1971, but it was completely renovated in 2006 when it was named for Monsieur Bocuse,” explains Anne Ravet, who offers guided tours of the market. “Bocuse himself often shopped here and he’s like a god in this market. He’s the pope of gastronomy!”
Today this gleaming modern food market is home to 58 shops and employs some 300 people each day. A far cry from the rustic street markets beyond, Les Halles feels more like an upmarket mall, where shoppers wander from the oysters of Maison Pupier to the cuts of beef and lamb from Trolliet; arguably the best butcher in town.
“A stall here is a mark of quality for local shopkeepers,” says Ravet, as we ogle at the chocolates of Sébastien Bouillet, who has shops in both Lyon and Tokyo.
That’s certainly the case for Sibilia, one of the most sought-after charcutiers in the city where rows of cured saucisse hang above fridges of their signature pâté en croûte; the rich brioche crust encasing a pâté of pork, duck and – for the pricey Richelieu – foie gras.
Les Halles Paul Bocuse is an integral part of Lyon’s modern-day food landscape, matched only by the historic bouchons the city is famous for. Originally begun by the cooks left unemployed after the fall of the aristocracy, today ‘bouchon’ is a watchword for generous portions of uncomplicated traditional cooking.
A short walk from Les Halles I find lunch at the respected bouchon Daniel & Denise, where the menu is a masterclass in traditional Lyonnais cuisine. I start with a fresh fromage blanc whisked with shallots, and dill, served on toasted bread. Next it’s a slice of superb pâté en croûte, the fattiness offset by a crisp green salad. Then two eggs arrive, poached in red wine and served in gravy of bacon and shallots. In a final bid to finish me off, the waiter brings quenelles: a traditional dish much like a soufflé, but made with pike from local waters. Typically served in a rich nantua crawfish sauce, this is comfort food for cold winter months.
“A proper bouchon offers a traditional taste of Lyon; it’s about generous food using authentic recipes from the region,” explains chef Joseph Viola, the President of Bouchons Lyonnais Certification who runs three lauded bouchons in the city. Impressively all three have received a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin guide.
For whenever it comes to eating in France, talk soon turns to Michelin. In the region there are 91 chefs with at least one star; seven of whom boast the coveted three star rating. That includes Maison Pic an hour to the south, where chef Anne-Sophie Pic is the only woman in France to hold three Michelin stars.
North of the city, Paul Bocuse’s L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges has held three stars since 1965 and while some hail it as the spiritual home of French cooking, others lament it as old-fashioned and out of step with modern trends.
At the Institut Paul Bocuse on Place Bellecour locals and tourists glimpse a decidedly modern taste of the famed chef’s cuisine. An offshoot of the Institut’s main campus beyond the city, here students gain practical experience in both the five-star Royal Hotel and the trendy ground-floor bistro l'Institut restaurant-école, which is open for lunch and dinner. Upstairs, two luxurious training kitchens offer half- and full-day culinary experiences in the company of the Institut’s highly-skilled chefs.
But there’s little time for tying an apron; I have a date with a Michelin star of my own.
On the steep streets of St. Jean, chef Christian Tetedoie’s eponymous restaurant offers up remarkable modern French cuisine in a restaurant boasting some of the finest views in the city.
Those stellar views are matched by superb service and a menu inspired by local produce from the city Tetedoie dubs “a first-class pantry”. Think duck-liver parfait with green asparagus and lemon marmalade jelly, or John Dory swimming in a foam of rich meunière sauce alongside seasonal legumes.
While this is decidedly fine dining, there’s an unexpected spirit of generosity here too, both on the plate and in the warm service. Throw in glittering views, with the Rhône and Saône slicing through the city, and there are perhaps few better places to enjoy a taste of the gourmet capital of France.
Currency: Euro. R13,44/€1.
Visas: South African passport holders require a Schengen visa to visit France. www.consulfrance-jhb.org
Get planning: Plan your visit: www.en.lyon-france.com and http://en.rhonealpes-tourisme.com.
Getting there: Air France flies daily from Johannesburg to Lyon, via Paris. In summer, the airline also flies from Cape Town to Paris. http://www.airfrance.co.za
See the city: A Lyon city card offers entry to museums and city attractions, along with free public transport on the excellent metro, bus and tram network. http://www.lyoncitycard.com