Written by Nico from LyonExplorer
Maybe you know that Lyon is very famous for its secret passages through buildings named Traboules or for its Roman history with its two Roman theaters. You may also know that it’s famous for being very active on the street art stage. Or maybe you’ve heard of Lyon during the french revolution or during WWII. Or maybe because it was one of the first important cities to embrace Catholicism. And amongst many other things, you’re right: That’s what made Lyon famous around the world. But there’s one important thing you’re forgetting… No, I’m not talking about the light festival (“La fête des lumières”). I want to write about something else and I’ll stop teasing you as, if you read the title, you already understood what I was talking about. Today, we’ll discuss the most important thing in life after love : food!
But why is food such an important topic in Lyon and why does it gain the title “Capital of Gastronomy”?
Before talking about history, let’s talk about geography. I know it sounds like if we were at school but bear with me. It is really interesting and with all you’ll be learning, you’ll be able to teach the Lyonnais their own history. It will be fun!
I think that one of the main reasons why Lyon became the capital of gastronomy is because of its geographical position.
First of all, Lyon is neither in the south, nor in the north of France. It’s in the center. And it’s just perfect as we have the best of two worlds. We traditionally cook with butter in the north and with olive oil in the south. In Lyon we use both… At the same time!
Secondly, if you trace a circle of 100km around Lyon, you’ll have access to most of the climate and type of land you can find in France. We have mountains, flat lands, hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, windy places, dry, cold, hot, temperate zones. We basically have everything. Therefore, we can grow any kind of fruit or vegetable and raise any kind of animal in our own region. It means that since forever, we have had access to the best products you can find in France and in most of European countries. We just needed humans and time to transform this potential into something. So let’s dig into history now!
Lyon is a Roman city, created by Lucius Munatius Plancus in 43 BC. And right away gastronomy became something in Lyon. Or not? Ok. Maybe I’m exaggerating. In reality, what is interesting to know about the Roman time is that it was the start of the ever longing tradition of wine in Lyon. Indeed, archeologists found traces of wine amphora on Bellecour Square. It was probably not the best wine ever but that’s apparently when it started to be produced in important quantities in the region. And if you’ve been to Lyon or if you plan on going there soon, you’ll notice that we have many wine bars in Lyon. You can taste any kind of wine but you really have to try the local ones. You’ll find two very different kinds of wine in the region: Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône. In Côtes du Rhône, you’ll have a wide range of different tastes, so just ask the expert in the bar and enjoy it!
We talked about drinking but gastronomy is not just about getting drunk! So, let’s talk about food. Renaissance was a very important time for gastronomy in Lyon. It is the opening of the city toward the world. In 1420, the king Charles VII allowed Lyon to organize two trade fairs per year. Now you might be asking yourself what is the link with gastronomy ? The link is that during these trade fairs, people from the whole world (at least the ancient world as America wasn’t yet discovered) were coming to Lyon. And they were coming with their traditions, their recipes and even more important, with their spices. So, the fact that we already had the best products growing in our region and that we had access to a whole new range of flavors was all we needed to start being creative with our cuisine.
1759 is an important date in the history of Lyon’s gastronomy. It’s the first time the term “Mère Lyonnaise” (Lyon’s mother) was used. It originally came from La mère Guy, who had a little restaurant by the Rhone river and was famous for her fish stew of eels. But what is a mère Lyonnaise? Initially, they were cooking for the rich families of Lyon. But they soon decided to create their own restaurants and this marks the origin of the reputation of Lyon’s gastronomy with a simple but refined cuisine.
The two World Wars have been important events for les Mères Lyonnaises. That’s when they became even more famous. Indeed, as most of the men were gone fighting, there was plenty of room left for the mothers to become the renowned chefs they still are today.
Nowadays, we still have very famous restaurants created by les Mères Lyonnaises. For example, you could eat in the restaurant of la mère Brazier which was the first one to have three stars in the famous culinary guide Michelin. But that’s not all, la mère Brazier is famous for something else as she was the first one to train one of the most famous chefs : Paul Bocuse. In case you don’t know who Paul Bocuse is, I can tease you by saying that you probably saw him in an animation movie… Did you guess? I’m talking about Gusteau in “Ratatouille”! This character was indeed inspired by Paul Bocuse, which can give you an idea of how famous he was.
While mentioning restaurants in Lyon, here is an important topic as well : if you already read articles about what to do in Lyon, you’ve probably heard of restaurants named Bouchons. A Bouchon is a traditional restaurant that you can find only in Lyon. And that’s where you’ll have the opportunity to taste our specialties as :
Without forgetting Gratons. Do you know what Graton is? It’s fat… This is the fat part of pork, cooked in the fat of the animal. Fat cooked with fat… It’s just perfect! Of course this list is non-exhaustive but it’s a good start for a first taste of Lyon’s gastronomy.
But, in order to understand gastronomy in Lyon, you have to know that it is not just about food. It’s a unique experience of simplicity and conviviality. And even more than food, it is probably what built the reputation of Lyon in this area. In a Bouchon, the tradition is to share your dish with your friends, to talk to people, to have a good glass of wine, and to relax. And if you’re lucky, the chef we’ll come to your table, sit down with you to see how you’re doing. It’s the friendliest place you can find in France.
Just one piece of advice, try to find a real Bouchon and avoid tourist traps!
And if you’re wondering what the name Bouchon' means, it seems to come from the tradition to put a ball made of pine-bough at the entrance of a restaurant as a sign to invite people to come in. The ancient French word to describe it was bousche.
As you may have guessed, gastronomy and Lyon is a long-time love story. And if you come to Lyon, you should be curious about it. Go in a Bouchon, try dishes even if it looks weird. Of course, try to avoid tourist traps by looking over the internet for advice. My favorite ones are “La tête de Lard” and “Le café des fédérations”. But don’t stick only on Bouchons. Go to a bakery and taste some sweets like “Tarte Praline” or “Coussin de Lyon”. And you can even try our junk food with our “Tacos Lyonnais” which is a kebab with the pan of a tacos. And of course, taste our wines. Go to a wine bar and try from north to south : start with Beaujolais and end with wine from south of France (they are stronger in the south than in the north). In a word : Be curious and enjoy our gastronomy but, except if you come walk with us to compensate, don’t plan on losing weight during your trip!