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An exquisite epicurean experience in Lyon

Punita Malhotra

Contributor

Boasting over 2,000 eateries, Lyon, with one of the highest concentration of restaurants per capita in the country, continues its long, uninterrupted reign as the ‘world capital of gastronomy’ owing to a centuries-old tradition of rustic and rich French food. Exquisite epicurean experiences are born right here, in the second city of France. For a close brush with authenticity, gourmands will do well to plan for a meal at a bouchon, a typical Lyonnais tavern showcasing the country’s impressive gastronomic traditions.

Known for gastronomic tradition

Once small family-owned dining establishments that catered to silk workers, bouchons have become an integral part of Lyonnaise history by persevering the heritage of local cuisine. There are only 23 certificated bouchons in Lyon. The certification is awarded with the title Les Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais and can be identified by a sticker of a Lyonnais marionette, Gnafron, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a napkin in the other. 

Apparently, the history of bouchons goes back to the 17th-18th centuries, when silk workers would stop at small inns on their way back home after a tedious working day, looking for a good, wholesome meal. They would clean their horses with a bunch of straw (called bouchon) outside the inns. Another story says that inn owners would hang corks made of straw outside their bistros to let the stagecoaches know that they were serving wine. And that’s how bouchons got their name. But history happens to be just one of the many interesting elements of French bouchons. Atmosphere is the other…

Traditional bouchon in Lyon, France

Photographer: Prochasson frederic

Recognised by family atmosphere

You can learn to identify an authentic, certified bouchon by some common items of decor. Prime suspects include red-and-white checked tablecloths, charcuterie hanging near the counter, balloon wine glasses, bistro chairs, Lyonnais wine jugs, a wooden counter, meals served from copper platters and sometimes even a stuffed faux pig. All that can be impersonated. What really gives it away, is the ambience. Look for loud, informal friendly chatter coupled with constant flow of local Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône house wine, and that unmistakable air of ‘being at home’. 

There’s a good chance that the friendly host (who is also the owner) is mingling around, dressed in casual attire and a generous smile. You may fin yourself being seated at a shared tables with strangers. Discussing, making new acquaintances, practicing French is all part of the unwritten code of conduct. The mood is spontaneous and laid back. The owner may return for chitchat and to share an infectious passion for Lyonnais cuisine. Bouchons are not impeccable, they are real, and that is what adds to their unique charm. An add-on, if you like, to the wonderful meal that will follow.

Traditional bouchon

Photographer: Catarina Belova

Famed for culinary finesse

If you are expecting traditional specialties made with traditional recipes and top quality of regional products, a bouchon is just the place to barge into. Come armed with a voracious appetite and an experimental mind, because the menus usually offer heavy, homemade items of typical cuisine, based on recipes from the ladies who used to cook for the bourgeois families and then decided to get into the food business. Popular dishes include smoky pork sausage with pistachios served on a dollop of mashed potatoes with a cream sauce, brochette of foie gras and the famous quenelles, a mixture of creamed fish. Lyonnaise saucissons and its varieties are also found in most bouchons. 

Other usual finds are gateau de foie (chicken liver soufflé), saucisson brioche (a pork sausage cooked in pastry), andouillette lyonnaise (tripe prepared Lyon-style), cervelle de canuts (cottage cheese with herbs, garlic and onions), bugles (typical dessert — a Lyon fritter with icing sugar), tarte praline (praline tart) and boudin noir (blood sausage, usually served with warm apples). Bouchon menus in Lyon are rife with organ meats like sliced tongue, tripe, ground pork head and veal intestine, so the adventurous can have a truly fulfilling day. 

For a French meal par excellence, it is recommended that you start with the entrée, followed by the plat principal, and finish with fromage and dessert plus the wine. Often, cheese is fromage blanc seasoned with herbs, shallots and vinegar. Good old French tarte aux pommes, île flottante (floating meringue in vanilla custard), creme caramel and tiny doughnuts are sweet staples for afters. Dining is both leisure and luxury for the French, so if you home-made meal takes forever to be cooked, revel in the pleasure of the wait. An evening filled with the best of ingredients like good food, fine wine, relaxed company and uplifting calm is guaranteed. Memories of grandma’s home surface may in your satiation-soaked stomach later, and that will be the final proof that it was indeed an authentic bouchon. 

Praline tarte

Photographer: Juliia_n

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