Since the early 20th century, Lyon has been widely considered as the French capital of gastronomy. In 1935, the French gastronomy writer Curnonsky, who was then the most celebrated in the trade, along with Marcel E. Grancher, wrote a book called “Lyon, the World Capital of Gastronomy”. Lyon gastronomy is often a quite simple way of cooking with local produce. Typical dishes from Lyon might sometimes be rich, but Lyon gastronomy is a high quality traditional cuisine. Let’s discover its main features through a culinary journey into the Gauls’ capital.
Specialities from Lyon
If you go out for lunch or for dinner in a typical restaurant or if you are invited by friends from Lyon, you cannot avoid “Cochonaille”! This word is often used in the area of Lyon to refer to pork products, which are more commonly named “Charcuterie” in other parts of France. In Lyon, many people are used to repeating this maxim: “Tout est bon dans le cochon !” (which literally means that there’s no wasted parts in pork). Generally speaking, Lyon’s cooking style includes many offal dishes.
In addition to pork products, people from Lyon often cook offal from beef. For example. “Tablier de sapeur” (which literally means a sapper’s apron) is a very famous entrée from Lyon and you can find it in every good “bouchon”, the typical restaurants in the town. This recipe originates from a Lyon military governor in the 1850s, Marshal Boniface de Castellane, who enjoyed meals that were made from tripe. Before becoming a military governor, de Castellane was a sapper and had to wear a leather apron while working in order to protect his uniform. The name “Tablier de sapeur” comes from the fact that the Marshal, who enjoyed this kind of meal, used to wear an apron. Usually “Tablier de Sapeur” comprises crumbed beef tripe which is cooked with white wine and served with salad and potatoes.
There are other types of entrées which are typical of Lyon. Salade Lyonnaise is among the most famous dishes in France and you will find it on the menus of many restaurants throughout the country. However, as expected, it is better to eat Salade Lyonnaise in Lyon as the original savoir-faire comes from the city. Salade Lyonnaise is actually green salad served with many sides: lardons (bacon strips), croûtons and always poached eggs. It is also very enjoyable eating Salade Lyonnaise with fried potatoes!
Speaking of potatoes, they are often part of many typical dishes from Lyon. A famous entrée with potatoes is the “Paillasson Lyonnais”, which literally means ‘doormat from Lyon’. It is named thus because of its shape, which often looks like a rectangle. Like many typical courses from Lyon, it is a simple dish which is easy to cook as it is only made from potatoes and butter!
As for main courses, Lyon is famous for its poultry meals. The area to the north-east of Lyon, called the Bresse, is actually the most famous area in France for poultry farming. People from the area are especially keen on fatted chicken (“poularde”) which is often cooked for family meals, in particular for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Usually, the meat is stewed in a sauce made from cream, flour, Vin Jaune (yellow wine) and mushrooms such as morels. For a high-quality dish, truffles can be used, making it the sort of dish you might find on Lyon’s best restaurant menus. The famous “Poularde demi-deuil” recipe was invented by “la Mère Filloux” who was a very famous chef in the early 20th century in Lyon. This dish is cooked with truffles and vegetables such as leeks, carrots and, typically for Lyon, potatoes. It can be served with “gratin dauphinois”: sliced potatoes cooked in the oven with cream and grated cheese.
Generally speaking, people from Lyon love “gratins” and you will often find gratins if you go to the Lyon area. They can be made of potatoes such as “gratin dauphinois”, but also with pasta or vegetables. Leeks gratin is very popular and so are pumpkin and onion gratins. If you go to Lyon during winter, it is likely that you will eat “gratin de cardon” (cardoon gratin), as it is a feature of the town’s gastronomy in this season. It is made of the vegetable’s stems, which are topped with a browned crust and often served with cream.
As for pork products, several famous French main courses are typical of Lyon, such as “boudin noir” (black pudding). In Lyon, people cook black pudding with stewed apples. Pretty similar in shape, “andouillette” is a white sausage made of pork offal. It is often cooked in the oven with mustard or with wine.
Finally, Lyon people are fond of quenelles! Quenelles are dumplings made of wheat (either wheat flour or semolina), butter, eggs, milk, water and, usually, fish. The most famous quenelles are pike quenelles (“quenelles de brochet”) and are often served with Nantua sauce, referring to a city located to the north east of Lyon in the Ain Department. This sauce is composed of crayfish, celery, carrots and Cognac and is also sometimes served with whitefish and rice.
As for cheese, Lyon is renowned! Saint-Marcellin is a very famous small cheese from Dauphiné, to Lyon’s south-east. It has a very special history, becoming popular in the 15th century thanks to Louis XI, before he actually became King. During a game hunting trip in the Drôme department, he was saved by two woodcutters who killed a bear that was attacking the Dauphin! To help him recover, the two woodcutters fed him a typical cheese from their area, which we know today as Saint-Marcellin. The woodcutters were then ennobled by Louis XI and their cheese became famous throughout the kingdom. In Lyon, it became especially famous thanks to “la Mère Richard”, a dairywoman who had invented a new maturing technique making the cheese even better! Saint-Marcellin has a close cousin called Saint-Félicien, which is slightly smoother and twice the size (150 grams).
Another well-known cheese from the Lyon area is “Tomme du Beaujolais” a soft 350-grams cows’ milk cheese which comes from the north of Lyon. Another cows’ milk cheese from the area is “Fourme de Montbrison”, an orange-coloured smooth cheese which is far bigger than Tomme du Beaujolais (2 kilos). As for goats’ milk cheese, the most famous one is “Rigotte de Condrieu”. It is matured for three weeks and only weighs 35 grams. Lyon people are keen on eating lukewarm Rigotte with green salad.
The most typical cheese speciality from Lyon might be “Cervelle de Canut” (literally meaning Canut’s brains), which is a fromage blanc flavoured with chives, garlic, shallot, parsley, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar and white wine. The recipe has changed several times throughout the years but Paul Lacombe, a Lyon chef, is widely considered as the creator of the “cervelle de canut”. Its name comes from the Canuts, silk workers of Lyon who were mostly working on Croix-Rousse Hill in the 19th century. The Canuts were poor people and they used to feed their families with cottage cheese, adding herbs, salt and pepper to give it a stronger taste.
Desserts and sweets
Lyon gastronomy is also famous for desserts and sweets. Lyon enjoys quite simple desserts, which are quite easy to cook and/or convivial.
The Matefaim looks quite like a mix between a normal cake and crêpes. As with most specialties from Lyon it is quite rich and its name refers to an expression from the “Parler Lyonnais” dialect: “Mater la faim” (suppressing appetite). Most of the time, matefaim is made from apples but you can also eat pear or potato matefaim, which makes it even richer! Originally, matefaim was a potato galette which was cooked by farmers. As a rich dish, it would help sustain them throughout the day at work if eaten in the morning. Matefaim has evolved as a thick salty or sweet crêpe made of flour, eggs and water, with cheese (for a salvoury matefaim) or with milk, sugar and fruits (for a sweet matefaim).
Bugnes are very famous desserts from the Lyon area, coming originally from Savoie before spreading to the West. The word “bugnes” comes from a dialect word meaning “beignet” (doughnut). Bugnes from Lyon are fried doughnuts, which are cooked in very hot oil and are quite thin and crispy. To give them a nicer taste and in order to hide its oiliness, bugnes can be cooked with lemon or orange blossom. François Rabelais mentioned them in the 16th Century as part of Lyon gastronomy in his well-known novel “Pantagruel”. However bugnes have been popular in and around Lyon since the Roman era. Since then, in the Lyon area, people have cooked and eaten bugnes for Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.
Another famous dessert from Lyon is made from pears and is called “Poires à la Beaujolaise” (Beaujolais style pears). Pears are cooked for five minutes in red wine from the Beaujolais (vineyards to the North of Lyon) with sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and orange peel. A syrup is then made with the sauce and blackcurrant liqueur, in which pears need to stew for another 20 minutes after having been peeled. Then, you get a very tasty and sweet dessert, which is very typical of Lyon and its surrounding area!
As for sweets, Lyon’s main speciality is called “coussins”, which literally means cushions. The name refers to their padded square shape. Coussins are little green candies made of chocolate and almond paste. When you buy coussins at the famous Voisin sweet shop on Rue de la République in the Lyon Presqu’île area, you get beautiful packaging explaining the history of this speciality. It refers to the plague epidemic which hit Lyon in 1643 and to the “Voeu des Echevins” (Aldermen vow). The aldermen vowed that the plague left the town, offering the Virgin Mary a seven kilo candle as well as a gold écu coin which was set on a silk cushion. As a sweet, the “coussin de Lyon” was born in 1960, being created by Lyon sweet maker Voisin.
Voisin is also famous for its amazing macarons, which are very sweet and flavoursome. You can buy macarons made of many different flavours, such as lemon, pistachio, blueberry, violet and salted butter caramel. Another well-known sweet maker from Lyon is “Délices des Sens” with three chocolate shops located on the Rhône left bank (3rd and 6th Arrondissements).
Another sweet speciality from the Lyon area are pralines which are made of almonds wrapped with cooked sugar and pink food colouring. This hard sweet is said to have been created by Clément Jaluzot, who was the chef of a 17th century French Marshall called Plessis-Pralin, giving his name to pralines! In the Lyon area they are well-known and appreciated. You can eat them by themselves or use them to decorate cakes and tarts such as the famous “tarte aux pralines” (pralines tart) or “brioche aux pralines” (pralines brioche). This last one is quite famous around Lyon thanks to Auguste Pralus, a sweet maker from Roanne, a city located 80 kilometres to the North-West of Lyon. Auguste Pralus (whose name looks and sounds like “praline”), created “brioche aux pralines” as “Praluline” in 1955: a play on words built around his own name and the name of the sweet!
Wines in Lyon area
The Lyon area has been a wine producing region since the Roman era. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century there were even vineyards in districts which are nowadays part of the town, such as on the Fourvière and Croix-Rousse hills. However, infestations of the the insect phylloxera ate into the vineyards, making them less and less productive: they were then overtaken by residential areas. Nowadays, there are three “Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée”, which are guarantees of a quality wine.
The Beaujolais was originally an old French province located to the North of Lyon, which took its name from the town of Beaujeu, its historical capital. Nowadays, the city of Villefranche-sur-Saône (around 35,000 inhabitants), in the Eastern part of the area, is more commonly considered Beaujolais’ economic and demographic centre. The Western Beaujolais is often referred to as “Beaujolais Vert” (Green Beaujolais), because it comprises hills covered with trees. Most of them being conifers, the area remains green throughout the year. The 1,000km² Eastern area of the Beaujolais is however much better known as a wine producing region, with more than 30 million litres of wine being made there every year.
The Beaujolais itself is divided into twelve different appellations, most of them referring to villages in the area: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Morgon, Régnié, Moulin à Vent, Côte de Brouilly, Brouilly, Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Chiroubles and Fleurie. 99% of the wine comes from a single grape variety called Gamay, which is a purple-coloured grape which can also be found in the Loire Valley. Gamay is known for producing fruity red wines which explains why, most of the time, Beaujolais wines are red wines: they represent an average 97% of the annual production. Generally speaking, Beaujolais wines should be drunk quite quickly after they have been bottled. Because of the Gamay grape variety’s characteristics, the wine has more body if drunk after some modest ageing and only a few Beaujolais wines can be stocked in the cellar for ten years at best.
For this reason, a very common tradition in France, especially in the Lyon area, is to celebrate the arrival of “Beaujolais nouveau” (new Beaujolais). It has been celebrated annually since 1951 on the third Thursday of November, only two months after the grape-harvest has been completed! It is a nice tradition where people gather together at home or in town to enjoy a moment with friends and family.
The second appellation is called “Coteaux-du-Lyonnais”, and is located to the West of Lyon. It comprises two parts: a Northern part around the town of L’Arbresle and a Southern part located around Brignais. Only about 760 thousands litres of Coteaux-du-Lyonnais are produced every year, which is far less than the 30 million litres of Beaujolais! The vineyards to the West of Lyon used to be far more extensive but they suffered infestations of phylloxera in the 19th century. Its characteristics are quite similar to Beaujolais and most of the wines from Coteaux-du-Lyonnais are red. They are much appreciated with “cochonaille” from Lyon! As with Beaujolais wines, don’t expect to store them for too long: their ageing potential lies somewhere between one and three years.
Finally, the “Côtes-du-Rhône Septentrionales” (Northern Côtes-du-Rhône) appellation applies to the South of Lyon. It is part of the larger “Côtes-du-Rhône” vineyards which extend south as far as Avignon, along the Rhône Valley. The Northern part of Côtes-du-Rhône is made of eight appellations, some of them being among the most famous in France: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Péray. They are quite different to the other appellations in the Lyon area. They are made from grape varieties which are usually very different (Syrah, Viognier, Roussane and Marsanne). Wines from Northern Côtes-du-Rhône are often finer but more expensive. You can keep them far longer than Beaujolais or Côteaux-du-Lyonnais wines, as some Hermitage red wines can be stored for 40 years and more! In Northern Côtes-du-Rhône, more than 12 million litres of wine are produced every year: they can be red, rosé, white or sparkling wines.
Markets in Lyon
As the French capital of gastronomy, Lyon hosts several well-known markets which are part of the cultural heritage of the town.
Croix-Rousse market might be the biggest and the most famous market in Lyon and its surroundings, stretching over a one kilometre long area on the banks of Croix-Rousse hill. It takes place every morning (except Mondays) from 6am to 1pm and is mainly occupied by fruit and vegetable retailers. On Saturdays an organic market also takes place, with producers from the Lyon area, whereas on Tuesdays the food market is comprised of manufactured goods retailers, selling pretty much everything, including clothes. Going to Croix-Rousse market is a very nice idea if you want to catch the spirit of Lyon and discover local specialities and customs…
Saint-Antoine market is another well-known market in Lyon. It takes place in the Lyon Presqu’île area, on Quai Saint-Antoine and Quai des Célestins, along the Saône banks between Place des Terreaux and Place Bellecour. As with the Croix-Rousse market, it occurs every day except Monday, from 6am to 1pm. In a way, it is like a local open air supermarket, as more than 130 merchants offer every kind of food products and Lyon gastronomy specialities. Saint-Antoine market is especially famous for its butchers, its delicatessens and its cheese shops, which are among the best in Lyon. It is also very enjoyable thanks to the lovely view over the Saône banks, Lyon Old Town and Fourvière Hill.
On Lyon Presqu’île you can also go to Place Carnot market, which only takes place on Sundays, from 6am to 1pm. It is a nice spot to enjoy a relaxing Sunday morning in town, with local merchants always ready to tell you about their products and Lyon specialities. Place Carnot also hosts every December since 1996, Lyon Christmas market. 140 traders (from 700 applicants) are carefully selected by Lyon’s council, based on the type of products they sell and of course their quality! Even though not as big as the north-eastern Christmas markets (such as Strasbourg, Colmar and Metz), Place Carnot’s Christmas market has become an important meeting place in the Rhône-Alpes region during the December celebrations, along with the Festival of Lights.
Finally, Lyon also has a covered market which is located on the left bank of the Rhône, in the Part-Dieu district. The “Halles de Lyon” were first established in the Cordeliers area, in Lyon Presqu’île between 1859 to 1971. The building became dilapidated in the middle of the 20th century and the covered markets moved to the current location, a few kilometres away to the West. They were renovated in 2005 and 2006, in order to become one of the most modern covered markets in France. Since then, it has been named “Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse”, in order to pay tribute to the charismatic and world-famous chef from Lyon, Paul Bocuse. It is also a way of giving the market international standing, based on Paul Bocuse’s celebrity. Nowadays, Lyon covered market hosts 56 stores and restaurants which are keen on offering to Lyon people and tourists local goods and specialities. The covered market is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 7am to 10.30pm (and to 2.30pm on Sundays).
Les Mères lyonnaises
If Lyon has been widely considered as the French capital of gastronomy for the last century, it is largely thanks to its chefs. From the end of the 19th century to the 1980s, the best chefs in Lyon were women, called “les Mères lyonnaises” (Mothers from Lyon) who used their savoir-faire and creativity to help Lyon gastronomy be ranked as one of the best in France.
Originally, the Mères used to be personal chefs of families from the Lyon bourgeoisie. However, from the end of the 19th century, some of these families suffered economic trouble and had to dismiss their personal chefs in order to save money. Most of them then started their own businesses, which is surprising considering how women were treated in the labour market back then. They opened their own restaurants, cooking perfectly simple and cheap dishes which were affordable by everyone, from the silk workers (known in Lyon as the “Canuts”) to the bourgeois.
The role model of all these women was the Mère Guy, who opened her own open-air restaurant in La Mulatière (in Lyon’s south-west suburbs) in… 1759! Her own grand-daughter, called “La Génie” (The Genius one) followed her and received huge appreciation from her customers, most of them being part of Lyon’s upper class. She was so famous throughout France that Empress Eugénie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, once specifically came from Paris in order to taste her amazing meals! Another famous early Mother from Lyon was the Mère Brigousse, who ran a restaurant in the first half of the 19th century in the Charpennes area, close to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, Lyon’s botanic gardens located on the left bank of the Rhône. She remained famous in Lyon gastronomy history for one of our specialities called “Têtons de Vénus” (Venus breasts), which were round shaped quenelles that she offered to young men during their stag parties…
One of the most famous Mothers from Lyon is undoubtedly the Mère Brazier, as she was the first women whose restaurant given three stars in the Michelin Guide. She used to be the employee of another Mother called the Mère Filloux, but as both of them had strong characters, the Mère Brazier decided to quit in 1921 in order to open her own restaurant at the foot of the Croix-Rousse banks. Paul Bocuse, now considered Lyon’s most famous chef, learned most of his skills in the kitchen of the Mère Brazier. She was so famous throughout the country that Lyon’s long-time mayor Edouard Herriot once said she was the second mayor of the town for making Lyon so famous!
The Mothers from Lyon remained active until the 1980s. Among the last ones were “Madame Biol” and “Tante Paulette”, who worked until 1990 and was famous for being a very generous person. The very last Mother of Lyon is Paulette Castaing, also known as “Mamie Castaing”: she retired in the late eighties, but still remains active and celebrated her 100th birthday in 2011!
Nowadays, even if the Mothers from Lyon have all retired, you can still go and eat in their restaurants, as their savoir-faire is carried on by new generations of chefs. The Mère Brazier restaurant, for example, is still ranked with two stars in the 2013 Michelin Guide.
The “Bouchons” from Lyon are typical restaurants where you can eat all the specialities from Lyon, often served with Beaujolais or Côteaux-du-Lyonnais wines. They are showcases of Lyon gastronomy, as you can eat quite simple and cheap dishes, in a modest but friendly atmosphere. The name “bouchon” comes from an old tradition carried on by some restaurants in Lyon. To inform their potential clients that wine was served in their establishment, the owners would hang up a little wine grape, called “bouchon”.
In Lyon, most of the authentic Bouchons are located in the Presqu’île area, as well as in Lyon Old Town. Nowadays, it is said that more than 300 restaurants in Lyon are using the “bouchon” appellation. Because some restaurants were doing so even if they did not respect the traditional aspects of Bouchons, in 2012 the Lyon Chamber of Commerce created a label called “Les Bouchons Lyonnais”. The objective of the label is to help customers choose between several restaurants, by indicating which ones follow the traditional Lyon gastronomy heritage. Some standards are expected in relation to the food quality and origins, home-made cooking, hospitality and atmosphere. As the label is quite new, only 20 restaurants are currently part of the movement.
2013 Best restaurants in Lyon area (according to the Michelin Guide)
Along with “Bouchons”, which are pretty simple restaurants, Lyon hosts several gourmet restaurants. Ten of them are ranked with at least one star in the 2013 Michelin Guide in inner Lyon, and another dozen in the town’s surroundings.
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- beef = boeuf (m)
- blackcurrant = cassis (m)
- butcher = boucher (m, profession) / boucherie (f, shop)
- butter = beurre (m)
- cake = gâteau (m)
- carrot = carotte (f)
- cheese = fromage (m)
- chives = ciboulette (f)
- cinnamon = canelle (f)
- cloves = clous de girofle (m)
- to cook = cuisiner (v)
- covered market = halles (f)
- cow = vache (f)
- crayfish = écrevisse (f)
- cured = fumé (adj)
- delicatessen = charcuterie (f) / “cochonaille” (f) (only in the Lyon area)
- dish = plat (m)
- doughnut = beignet (m)
- dry sausage = saucisson (m)
- egg = oeuf (m)
- fatted chicken = poularde (f)
- to feed = (se) nourrir (v)
- fish = poisson (m)
- fruity = fruité (adj)
- garlic = aïl (m)
- gastronomy = gastronomie (f)
- goat = chèvre (f)
- grape = raisin (m)
- kitchen = cuisine (f)
- leek = poireau (m)
- market = marché (m)
- milk = lait (m)
- oil = huile (f)
- organic = biologique (adj)
- oven = four (m)
- parsley = persil (m)
- pasta = pâtes (f)
- pear = poire (f)
- pepper = poivre (m)
- pike = brochet (m)
- pork = porc (m)
- potato = pomme de terre (f)
- poultry = volaille (f)
- to produce = produire (v)
- pumpkin = citrouille (f) / potiron (m)
- recipe = recette (f)
- retailer = commerçant (m)
- rice = riz (m)
- salt = sel (m)
- sausage = saucisse (f)
- savoury = salé (adj)
- shallot = échalotte (f)
- sparkling = pétillant (adj)
- sugar = sucre (m)
- sweet = sucré (adj) or sucrerie (f)
- vanilla = vanille (f)
- vegetable = légume (m)
- vinegar = vinaigre (m)
- vineyard = vignoble (m)
- water = eau (f)
- wheat = blé (m)
- wine = vin (m)