Lyon, not Paris, is recognized as the food capital of France, some say of the world, which I guess is the same thing in many eyes. Lyon’s elevated status is personified by Paul Bocuse, whose L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges has held three Michelin stars every year since 1965; and Bocuse’s acolytes have spread top quality cuisine across the city. Although Bocuse is known as the godfather of the lighter nouvelle cuisine, the heart and soul of food in Lyon are the bouchons. These began as small inns serving meals to the Canuts, the silk workers in Lyon. They are inexpensive and weigh in at the opposite end of the spectrum from nouvelle cuisine.
Many Lyon restaurants call themselves bouchons, but Lyon has an organization that certifies authentic bouchons. These must serve traditional dishes, such as quenelles de brochette, tablier de sapeurs, and cervelle de canut, about all of which more anon. They must use local ingredients; serve wine by the pot, or carafe, not the glass; and maintain a convivial atmosphere created by the owner, who must be on-site. Currently there are only 21 certified bouchons in Lyon, most of which are in the 2d Arrondisement, between the rivers, and in the 5th, the Old City (a UNESCO site).
First thing in the morning after a good breakfast at our hotel, Nancy and I took a cab to the Quai Claude Bernard where our cruise ship, the Viking Buri, was docked. We dropped our bags and headed west across the Rhône and Saône for the Old City. It was slow going. We were waylaid by food markets stretched along each side of the Rhône and the east bank of the Saône (an art, craft, and junk market was on the west bank). I dearly love French food markets. They are beautiful and oh so tempting. For our last trip to Paris, we rented an apartment in the Marais specifically to be near the huge food market there, and to have a kitchen in which to prepare our finds. The quality of the produce in Lyon was extraordinary. I even, for the first time in my life, photographed heads of lettuce.
It’s a poor photograph, unfocused, and doesn’t do justice to the lettuce. When I saw it, the lettuce fairly took my breath away. I also snapped some Lyon meat specialties,
a nice variety of olives,
and, of course, one of the glories of France, the rotisseries of chickens roasting and dripping their juices onto grateful potatoes.
What a beautiful sight — and smell!
We finally made our way to the Old City, on the west bank of the Saône, and wandered about the medieval streets. It was a gorgeous Saturday, sunny and in the 70s, and the Old City was jammed with tourists, mostly French (Lyon is the top weekend destination in France), a fair number of East Asians, and us. I hadn’t done much planning, so Nancy and I went to lunch at the first certified bouchon we found (four of the 21 are in the Old City), Le Laurencin.
We were seated in the very crowded restaurant, full of our fellow tourists. Most were speaking French, but Japanese was well represented, and I heard a spring of Vietnamese. Le Laurencin was doing a land office business, and from my seat, I was mesmerized by a view of dishes pouring out of the kitchen.
Nancy ordered a light lunch, just a salade Lyonnaise and a bottle of water. I ordered the oeuf en meurette to start, the quenelles de brochette, and a pot of wine, which worked out to about 2 1/2 glasses.
I had never heard of eggs meurette,
but, ever on food alert, I saw someone eating it as we made our way to our table, and I managed to translate some key words in the description. It’s an egg poached in a wine sauce with lardons (I think the French usually use fatback instead of the belly). It often is served with garlic bread. Here, the dish was chock full of lardons and croutons. With the yolk broken, eggs meurette is an absolutely delicious and deeply satisfying dish, a model of comfort food. It could make a meal in itself.
Bouchons are known for large portions, and any doubt of that score was erased by Nancy’s “light” lunch of a salade Lyonnaise.
Think of breakfast as a salad. That’s salade Lyonnaise, bacon and an egg over frisée. Nancy’s light salade Lyonnaise had not one but two beautifully poached eggs, about a pound of lardons, a head of green lettuce, and a small loaf’s worth of croutons. Salade lyonnaise is a wonderful salad, my favorite of all salads once you break the egg and spread the yolk. It is good in many ways but at Le Laurencin, light it is not.
My pike quennelle was another big dish. It’s made of ground pike, flour, and some veal fat and/or egg to bind. The mixture is formed in a thick sausage shape, surrounded by a lobster and cream sauce, and run under a Salamander, and here served with rice and a desultory lemon slice. (You can squeeze a lemon wedge. Slices are a waste.)
The quenelle itself did not have a lot of flavor, but the lobster sauce was delicious. It went well with bread as well as with the rice and quenelle.
Bouchon cuisine is not complex, and I daresay Le Laurencin is not the most sophisticated of bouchons. The salad was made with ordinary lettuce rather than bitter frisée, and I’m sure eggs meurette can get more careful and complex; but mine sure tasted good. This is hearty food, workers’ food, and at Le Laurencin, you get a very, very full meal for 15€ each (I think — that may be the price of the three course formule (as if dessert were conceivable after two courses)), and maybe 8€ more for the wine. The bouchon experience is a must in Lyon, and Le Laurencin is not a bad option at all. I enjoyed my meal, and I feel deeply indebted for the introduction to eggs meurette. I’ll give it a try at home during soup season. Go, but try to go during a weekday or at an off time, so that you and the kitchen can relax a bit.
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