There are many roads between the Alps and the Rhone, and they all lead to the French cuisine



Along the traboules to the bouchons

Lyon is widely regarded as the capital of French cuisine. And while the capital Paris is synonymous with fine dining, Lyon is more like a steaming kitchen where everything is bubbling over. In one corner there’s something being boiled, baked, or preserved in the simple and hearty traditions of country cooking; in the other, culinary delights are being conjured worthy of the Bocuse d'Or – a type of culinary Nobel prize established by the gastronomic patriarch of Lyon. Lyon’s bouchons, the cramped and homely local bistros, dispel the last myths surrounding the frivolity and affectations of French cuisine.

Archaic red and white tablecloths, homemade wine in sturdy bottles (the 0.46-liter bottles typical for a Lyon bouchon make nice souvenirs), heart-warming food that used to be cooked by the grandmothers of the current chefs: pike quenelles, scorching macaroni gratin, warm pâté, pie filled with goose liver, veal kidneys and other variations on the theme of giblets... Lyon is spoiled by its close proximity to the most fertile areas of the country – the valleys of the Rhone and Saone, Beaujolais, Burgundy, the Alpine foothills and the Mediterranean. Now Les Halles de Lyon – an indoor market showcasing the gastronomic delights produced by the surrounding farms – is also named after Paul Bocuse.

With their overpowering sausages, hams and carcasses of fattened poulards, these lines of shops and stalls look like illustrations from Gargantua and Pantagruel. In fact, Rabelais wrote his book here in Lyon while serving as a doctor in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. By the end of next year, a modern center of world gastronomy will be opened here in a former hospital offering an unprecedented concentration of restaurants even for France. It will be possible to meet there both Michelin chefs and the owners of Lyon’s bouchons.


Children of the mountains

The idyllic and peaceful city of Annecy is not only an all-season resort but also the capital of the Haute-Savoie department. In a nod to the exclusive location of their small homeland, local residents are fond of letting it slip that the city has only been French since 1860 and that it is only half an hour from here to Geneva.

Savoyards do have a lot in common with their neighbors, including their diet, which extends to making cheese on the alpine pastures and catching fish in the mountain lakes. Trout from Lake Annecy is the most popular catch, and it can even be seen on the city's coat of arms (it first appeared there in the 15th century) and on the openwork lattice of the old town hall balcony. Nowadays, the ecological value of this delicacy is particularly great, given that the lake is considered one of the cleanest in Europe. The climate here is quite severe by European standards (in winter even walking around the city can chill you to the bone) and so these mountain people are accustomed to having square meals rich in calories.

They don't seem to understand the concept of dieting. In winter, they consider all kinds of cheese and potato dishes the best type of "fuel", just like a hundred years ago. Take your pick from Savoyard fondue (which makes use of several kinds of cheese, white wine, and garlic in its recipe), raclette (melted cheese served with potatoes), tartiflette (a serving of boiled potatoes with bacon, covered with slices of Reblochon with the crust still intact and a dollop of creme, and baked in the oven). In winter, the diot sausages sizzle in large frying pans on the streets — this is fast food that will quickly chase out the cold and is traditionally washed down with hot wine. Tourists don't worry about what season it is, and will gladly gobble up all these winter delicacies on a warm summer day on the open verandas of a cafe in the midst of Annecy in bloom.

It’s clear that the local residents standing behind the cheese, confectionery and sausage counters aren’t work-shy; some of them even have ribbons attached to their uniforms designating the award "Best worker in France", an honor granted by France’s Ministry of Labour only to the most talented workers once every three or four years.


Behind the scenes of the holiday

The fame of Beaujolais province has played a cruel joke on it. This small region has become the symbol of a noisy November holiday on the occasion of the presentation of the first wine of the season. The attractiveness of the widely promoted Beaujolais Nouveau is often linked with its earliness – it goes on sale just six weeks after the grapes are harvested. But, aside from the nouveau, there are other, much more interesting, wines that come from the Gamay grape with their advantage being that they pair ever so well with the local cuisine. Meat and poultry, game, cheeses – these wines rise to any gastronomic challenge. The cuisine of the region gained its diversity through absorbing the culinary traditions of Burgundy, Savoie, and Lyon. The local red wine is served with caillette (this is something like baked pâté from pork and liver with garlic) simply because other wines are too timid to confront the powerful bouquet of flavors. And when in Beaujolais, you need to try foie gras terrine – the pâté can be bought in any grocery store in a ceramic pot. A well-known Burgundy dish Coq au Vin, chicken cooked in a wine sauce, is also a speciality of the region. The classic recipe calls for the bird to be braised for a long time in red wine (and guess what sort of grape they recommend?).

Frog legs were once the highlight of the local cuisine. Now, the real enthusiasts of Beaujolais only talk about this delicacy with ambivalence, looking away with a heavy sigh. Until quite recently, the best legs came to the restaurant kitchens directly from the Dombes plateau, supplied from man-made ponds. When the supply of Dombes frogs dried up (they say it happened because of all the gourmets), they began to be supplied from elsewhere, but the legs are not the same anymore.

If you believe the legend, grapes were brought here by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land after searching for the Grail. Although the Beaujolais region doesn’t have any holy shrines, one could argue that the vines covering the hills and valleys are a blessing in their own right.

From breakfast to lunch 

  • You can walk endlessly through the streets of the Old Town. This beautifully preserved vast medieval quarter was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Peninsula of Presqu'île at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone has the most luxurious buildings and shops. Bellecour Square, Merciere Street, Opera, and Confluence Museum (Musée des Confluences) represent the city's major landmarks. 
  • Traveling through the traboules is one of the exclusive adventures that Lyon provides to its guests. About 500 passageways, stairs, and galleries pervade the central neighborhoods linking 230 streets. The most famous are the traboule of the Pink Tower in the Old Town and the Cour de Voraces on the slope of the Croix-Rousse Hill.

Before dinner

  • The picturesque Sainte-Claire street leads from the ancient residence of the Counts of Geneva to the Thiou canal. It is through here where the French kings used to enter Annecy in the olden days. Over the centuries, Sainte-Claire has lost none of its charm and the extensive arcades from the 17th-18th centuries are now occupied with restaurants, boutiques, and souvenir shops.
  • The island palace built in the middle of the Thiou canal in the 12th century provides tourists with the city's most iconic view. Once upon a time, this stern-looking stone building resembling a fortress was the residence of the ruler of Annecy, and at various points in its history has served as a mint, court, and even a prison. It is now the city museum.

Between tastings

  • The south of the Beaujolais region is called the Land of Golden Stones, where the local villages, castles, and churches are built of yellow limestone that glow the color of this precious metal in the sun. One of these noble settlements is Oingt, which is included in the list of the most beautiful villages of France. Its medieval streets offer stunning views of the surrounding vineyards.
  • To see all of the Beaujolais area at once, you can climb up Mount Brouilly in the town of Saint-Lager. A viewing platform has been erected at the top. 
  • The village of Salles-Arbuissonnas-en-Beaujolais was built around a Benedictine monastery constructed in the 10th century. Its impressive walls and towers still remain the main attraction here. A magnificent Romanesque cloister framing the courtyard deserves a special look.

By Maria Vorobieva

Published on: June 24, 2018