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How did Lyon became the capital of gastronomy?

by | Nov 8, 2018

“Lyon is the world Capital of Gastronomy”

Curnonski

Grand critique culinaire, « prince des gastronomes ».

Ever since the Gallo-Roman period, Lyon has remained firmly rooted at the centre of attention. Indeed, the city was a political capital in ancient times and went on to become an economic and cultural hub. Nowadays, Lyon’s culture radiates throughout France and beyond thanks to its distinctiveness, genius and boldness. Gastronomy is one of the spearheads of the city’s expertise, to the point where the nickname “Capital of gastronomy” is now immediately associated with Lyon.

I – The History of the city of Lyon

During the vast time period running from the middle ages (476-1453) to the renaissance (until end of the sixteenth century), the city of Lyon is a rite of passage. It offers many activities and fairs, as well as inns to offer accommodation and a bite to eat. The fairs of Lyon took place every season, attracting travellers from all over the kingdom as well as neighbouring countries. Innkeepers would then set up stall to present their specialty dishes. Among these one could find the notorious cardoons, a vegetable which has become typical of Lyon’s culinary culture. If you walk down Rue du Boeuf today, you can happen upon some of these beautiful inns like l’Hotel de l’Etoile or l’Outarde d’Or, beacons of the city’s legacy.  

During the nineteenth century, the travel network intensifies and many visitors equip themselves with travel guides to explore the city of Lyon and discover its famous produce, such as chestnuts, cheeses and “Charcuterie” (or cold cuts). In addition, visitors meet with a whole range of delightful products like brioche, chocolate or beer.

In 1859, “La matelote d’anguille” owned by Mère (Mother) Guy holds a prominent place in the Joanne guide. Mère Guy and many other women open their restaurants with a desire to work with a constant menu and quality produce. Among these “mères”, we can mention Mère Brazier, who opened her restaurant on rue royale in 1921. The establishment becomes increasingly popular, the mayor of Lyon Edouard Herriot can be found there most days and all the gourmet visitors rush over.

Mère Brazier becomes a well-known name. Before long, she opens a second restaurant at the Col de la Luère (in the Pollionay commune). The restaurant quickly gains international recognition; it is in fact where Paul Bocuse completed his training.
In 1932, Mère Brazier is given 2 stars for each of her restaurants. Then in 1933, a first in French history, the Michelin guide gives her 3 stars for both her restaurant on rue royale and the one at the Cole de Luère.
New dishes appear on the menu in 1930 like Bresse Chicken, which is still very popular today.
More generally, Lyon’s cuisine makes remarkable progress in terms of quality during the 1930’s. This in turn prompts the city to develop new activities around gastronomy. The “Semaine Gastronomique” (week of cuisine) is one of them, created in 1932 and rechristened Days of Lyonnaise cuisine in 1935. The acclaimed Foire de Lyon (Lyon fair) was launched around the same time, in 1934. Together with the Palais de l’Alimentation, it constitutes a comprehensive framework to studying gastronomy.
And so, Lyon’s reputation as mother of gastronomy is solidly established. We can now pore over the local terroir and influence, core elements upon which the city’s expertise was erected.

II – Terroirs and influence of Lyon’s influence

The south is represented by the use of butter, olive oil and early harvest vegetables (the very first vegetables harvested in the season, grown in an entirely natural manner). These vegetables are packed with flavours and textures, often particularly appreciated for their tender and melt in your mouth characteristics.
In addition, we must keep in mind that during the Renaissance, Lyon was a major European hub on the road conveying spices from the east.
A great number of terroirs also contribute their culinary expertise to the city’s savoir-faire. In its surrounding, we find Bresse and its renowned poultry, Bugey and its wine and crawfish, and of course the Nantua lake from which the nantua sauce is crafted as a perfect escort for quenelles (a form of dumplings). Not to mention the Dombes, which are to thank for the frogs sourced in its lakes. Meat in turn is sourced in the north, in the Charolais region, and thanks to the beautiful Beaujolais vineyard there is no shortage in delectable refreshment.

Now if we shift toward the west, we happen upon the breeding grounds of the Monts du Lyonnais. They supply the city with charcuterie, which residents refer to as “cochonailles”: dried sausage, salami, pigs feet, rosette, rind, ham, filet mignon, terrines, pâtés de campagne… the list goes on and is enriched by rigottes, small cheeses crafted with cow or goats milk.
Further south we find the wines of the Rhone valley, the finishing touch to the Lyonnaise region’s influences. All these terroirs embellish the local gastronomy with their diversity and long-lived prestige.

III – What has become the capital of the gastronomy nowadays?

The late Paul Bocuse, which you may have heard of under the epithet “Monsieur Paul” or “Pope of cuisine”, really set the ball rolling when it comes to Lyon’s Gastronomy. This Michelin star chef, voted best French labourer in 1961 (an official title), was declared the “Cook of the century” by Gault-Millau in 1989. The city truly owes him its gastronomic repute. In 1987, he created the Bocuse d’Or, the most prestigious culinary competition which holds its final challenge in Lyon. This competition takes place every two years, as part of the world famous International Hotel, Catering and Food Trade Exhibition.

But after the passing of this great figure, can Lyon really hold on to the much sought-after title of “capital of gastronomy”?
Lyon was developed by Monsieur Paul during his lifetime, and where his life ended his heritage took over to ensure the artist’s work lingers within the city.
Many have followed in his footsteps and tried to increase Lyon’s renown. The “Toques Blanches Lyonnaises et de la region”, or local association of White Chef’s hats, are an example among many. Since 1936, several of Lyon’s great chefs have joined together to showcase the local cuisine through this association.
Members come from a wide range of backgrounds, old lions and new blood, both from traditional cuisine and more contemporary styles. The association has had remarkable presidents like Pierre Orsi and Guy Lassaussaie, or the current one Laurent Bouvier. They are invested in many events related to culinary art, for example during the Sirha where they were actively backing Lyon’s nomination as city of gastronomy.
And so even as the pope of gastronomy is no longer here, the city has maintained its reputation. Indeed, there are about 4000 restaurants and 20 chefs with Michelin stars within its walls.
It won’t come as a surprise that projects are constantly blossoming from this diverse community of culinary aficionados. One of these is the International City of Gastronomy, a compelling project which deserves a few words.

What is this project?

Located at the very heart of the newly refurbished Hôtel-Dieu, this showroom will do justice to the art of “Haute Gastronomie”. It will be spread out over 4 floors and 3900 square meters and present temporary and permanent collections, as well as experimenting areas where admired chefs will whip up exquisite dishes. The head chef of the Régis et Jacques Marcon restaurant, decorated with 3 Michelin stars, will be one of them. The goal is to create a space to develop and pass down savoir-faire and experience of good food, in order to prompt innovation and experimentation between producers and chefs.
The International City of Gastronomy, which will open in 2019, shall undoubtedly reinforce Lyon’s position as world capital of Gastronomy.
The path of Lyon’s ascent through history was paved with very typical restaurants. Some have had the better of time and survived throughout the ages. The brasserie Georges, for example, has been sitting on the Cours de Verdun since 1836, and the grand cafe des negociants which opened in 1864 can still be found at the Cordeliers.

L’histoire de lyon s’est forgée à travers des restaurants typiques. Certains ont traversé les siècles. C’est le cas de la brasserie Georges, installée depuis 1836 sur le cours de Verdun, ou encore du grand café des négociants installé aux Cordeliers depuis 1864.

We must also mention the famous “bouchons Lyonnais”, emblems of the city’s gastronomy. Quite difficult to define, these local restaurants embody Lyon’s character in the quarter of the old city. There you will find traditional marionettes, a delightful Beaujolais and plates of “Cochonnailles”, and all the local produce cooked to perfection.
At the very beginning, however, these “bouchons” were intended for the “canuts”, silk workers who worked from the early hours of the morning. A bit later, around 9 AM, they they would enjoy a little break with leftovers from dinner (a “casse-croute”) in a quarter called the Croix-Rousse. These restaurants have evolved a great deal, but they will always be a key element of Lyon’s history.

IV – Lyon and the splendour of its wine

Nevertheless, Lyon wouldn’t have become the world capital of gastronomy without the quality of its wine.
Indeed, local vineyards are one of the elements which make the city’s pride. Léon Daudait even said:” the city of Lyon is irrigated by three great rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais which is never loamy and dry. »
Through these few words the writer pays his respects to a wine country with a heavy history. The region was already known for its wines during the Gallo-Roman period. Vines crept closer and closer to Lyon until they reached Fourvière during the middle ages. They were cultivated on the slopes of the Croix Rousees and the hill of Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon. These no longer exist today, we find them instead in the beaujolais, the coteaux-du -lyonnais and the Coteaux du Rhône. We will say a few words about what sets these vineyards apart.

The main characteristics of its vineyards?

The Beaujolais produces nearly exclusively red wines. Only 1% of production represents white and rosé. There are however several types of Beaujolais. The simpler style of Beaujolais can be associated with many foods and dishes and adapted to several styles of cuisine. The Beaujolais village is a fruitier style of wine. Finally, you will have heard of the 10 crus of the Beaujolais: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte-de-Brouilly, Saint Amour, Juliénas, Fleurie, Moulin-à-vent, Régnié and Morgon.
These vines take up 75600 hectares and produce three million hectolitres of wine every year.
The rest of the vineyard is split over two valleys : the northern Rhône valley from Vienne to Valence and the southern Rhône Valley, from Montélimar to Avignon.

Among the great crus of the north of the Rhône valley, you can find these few famous names around Lyon: Côte-Rôtie, the Condrieu and the Château-Grillet. If you ;re a little more curious, you could end up near Tournon where you’ll recognize the following names : Saint Jospeh, the Crozes-Hermitage, the Hermitage. Finally, the fearless will end up around Valence, the Cornas and Saint Péray.
The vineyard covering the north of the Rhône valley is also considerable, spreading out across 71 000 hectares and producing 2 840 000 hectolitres per year.
The main wine issued from the southern vineyard of the Côtes-du-Rhône is the AOC Chateauneuf-du-pape. It’s one of the greatest French crus. It goes back to the fourteenth century when the Pope Jean 12th created the vineyard. It covers 3000 hectares and produces 100 000 hectolitres per year, 90% of which is red wine. Thanks to a mistral, many AOCs from the south of the Rhône Valley require no treatment, or very little. For this reason many domains are organic or biodynamic, or at least engage in sustainable agriculture. Some other remarkable appellations like Gigondas, Vacqueryras or Ventoux are not as famous but become more and more popular as the years go by.

The climate of these valleys is mediterranean. It benefits from one of the biggest diversity of its unique terroirs and soils. But you will learn more about this in our next article. Soon…

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