Getting a head in Lyon
Robert Ashton enjoys his food. But even he was a bit disconcerted when faced with a menu in Lyon.
Veals’s head? Had I translated that correctly? Tete de Veau. Yup, that’s Head of Veal. Sounds, ahem, interesting. Anything else? Ah, yes, blood sausage with apple? That’s a bit different. Anything else? Pork cheeks in sauce? What sauce? Could be a little challenging…
An interesting mental conundrum and for some this would have been the point that they ran screaming from the restaurant. As an avid omnivore I stick to the basic premise that if a good chef is willing to put it on his menu I’m willing to try it. It’s an approach that has led me to try a number of ‘interesting’ dishes over the years with, I’m pleased to report, no ill effects.
Boudin noir ( blood sausage) got my vote in the end and it was incredibly fresh and rich. A few forkfuls of my friend’s tete de veau (veal’s head) revealed it tasted better than it looked (not difficult) but, in my opinion, the best dish of all was the joue de porc (pork cheek). Very meaty, very tasty.
Luckily, we were in France and the self-styled gastronomic capital of an undeniably foodie nation. Lyon is (arguably) France’s third city yet still feels friendly and welcoming. Cosily sited between two major rivers (The Rhône and the Saône) just above their confluence, it’s not hard to see why the founding fathers chose this beautiful spot. Originally the rivers and surrounding hills (becoming Alps a little further out) would have provided protection for the settlers, but these days they are better employed as dramatic backdrops.
The interesting meal encounter occurred in one of Lyon’s heritage restaurants. Café des Federations in the old city is one of the few remaining authentic ‘Bouchon’ restaurants that were originally born from the need for a good meal whilst your horse was being attended to. In effect they were the 18th century French equivalent of a garage’s vending machine and at one point there were literally hundreds. Now there are less than 20. They serve up the cheaper cuts of meat, prepared in fantastic ways, at a fraction of the usual restaurant costs. The house wines are served in a traditional 46cl vessel called a ‘pot’ and are jolly good too – as you’d expect when in the heart of the Rhône valley, a famous wine producing area (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Crozes Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Côte Rôtie and many, many more great wines are from this area).
Not all gastronomic experiences in Lyon are quite so challenging. With a large population, including many thousands of students, almost every taste and budget is catered for.
Robert’s tips for staying in Lyon
If you are visiting for a special occasion, and would like to stay somewhere rather special, look no further than Cour des Loges. The building is unprepossessing from the cobbled street in Lyons old city centre but inside it’s a different matter. The hotel has been created by restoring and enclosing a number of old merchants’ houses. Glass now covers the central courtyard creating a wonderfully light, yet comfortable central area that is used for dining. Covered walkways, that would once have been open to the elements, now lead to the rooms. If money is not an issue this is most definitely the place to stay.
However, back in the real world, I have found that the Mercure Lyon Plaza République is well appointed and has incredibly comfortable beds, without being overly expensive. It’s in a comparatively quiet location and the main attractions are all within easy walking distance. Do you need anything more in a hotel? I don’t think so, especially with a city as vibrant as Lyon just outside the door.
Lyon St Exupery airport is a major hub with flights from all over the world and excellent TGV links (the French high speed rail network). Shuttle buses (and taxis) are freely available to whisk you into the city centre. If travelling by train you can also head to Lyon Part Dieu station and then use the sleek new tram service to get into town for just a few Euros.
Café des Federations (Bouchon restaurant), 10 Rue Major Martin, Lyon;
Cour de Loges http://www.courdesloges.com
Mercure hotels: Accor www.accor.com
The Foody Traveller suggests
Want to sample some of the delicious wines of the region at home? Hennings Wine Merchants offer an excellent delivery and/or mail order service featuring many of the wines so enjoyed by Robert Ashton. For full details visit www.henningswine.co.uk quoting TFT as the voucher.