Bonjour à tous! This is GUES Board Member Caroline Barnes writing from Lyon, France—THE "gastronomique" capital of France! Coincidence that I chose to study abroad here this fall semester? I think not! A few months ago, I knew very little about this hidden gem of a European city, but I am happy to say that after three months of living, studying, and let’s be real, eating, my way around the city, I’ve happily come to call it home.
Life in Lyon
What does a typical week look like for me here in Lyon? When I’m not spending long weekends taking advantage of cheap flights, trains and buses around Europe, I spend my time going to class across the river at Sciences Po Lyon, formally known as “Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lyon”. This is a “grand école” founded by Charles de Gaulle in the mid 20th century and is one of nine other Sciences Po schools in France. The lectures are taught entirely in French and are led by professors who specialize in particular areas of political science. I am taking six classes that meet once a week for two hours, usually between the windows of Tuesday-Thursday. My favorite class is about Social Democracy in 20th century Europe—what a cool perspective and rare opportunity to learn about socialism in a socialist country! In my free time, I enjoy running along the rivers, exploring the history of Lyon through its traboules (secret tunnels) and museums, and sampling fresh products at marchés (open air farmer’s markets). Not to mention I’ve taken advantage of being removed from the busy culture of GU by learning how to “flâner”—taking leisurely strolls without any given purpose. But enough about studies and me—onto the food!
Lyon: The Hidden Gem & "Carrefour" of Europe
Believe it or not, Lyon is the third largest city (but second largest metropolitan area) in France and is the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. To put it into perspective, Lyon is located just southeast of Paris (it takes a little under 2 hours to get there by train) and is known as the “carrefour” or crossroad of Europe, as it is situated at the junction of two rivers, la Saône and le Rhône, thus uniting the northern Parisian basin and the southern rivers of the Mediterranean. Lyon’s role as connector of France and Europe as a whole is seen through the diversity of products that come from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and those surrounding, including wine from Beaujolais or Burgundy and Saint-Marcellin cheese from Isère, two staple foods of the French diet. When I describe Lyon’s prime location to friends, I usually simplify it by saying that you can go north for a wine tour, east to ski or hike the Alps, south to sunbathe by the Mediterranean, or west to explore castles and countryside.
The Foodie Capital of France
But why is Lyon famed for its gastronomy? Besides having one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita in France, we have the French chef Paul Bocuse and the “mères lyonnaises” (mothers of Lyon) to thank for its exceptional reputation. These self-taught mothers of Lyon, who started out of their own kitchens, went on to open the first bistros to gain wide reputation, known for simplicity and quality, which later earned the city the title of “world capital of gastronomy” by famed food critic Curnonsky. Bocuse on the other hand, dubbed “the Pope of French cuisine”, is an exceptional chef who introduced Lyon and the world to “nouvelle cuisine”, which is the act of cooking lighter, more delicate dishes with an increased focus on presentation. He now has a few of his own famous restaurants around Lyon, which tourists and locals flock to, especially in early December when we celebrate the “Fête des Lumières”. While Bocuse was very influenced by the “new” of cooking, the Lyonnais mothers were best at preserving the tradition of their cuisine, which is still being served at “bouchons”, or traditional Lyonnais restaurants, around France.
These hearty regional specialties, also known as “cuisine lyonnaise”, include dishes such as:
Cheese, Bread, Butter...and more Butter
To be quite honest, I am still learning to embrace this type of cuisine; especially given that at home I eat mainly vegetarian or white-meat based dishes. I have become a bit more adventurous however, trying the galettes (savory crepes) that my host mom makes for me that usually include lardon (ham), eggs and lots of cheese and butter. It took a bit of time to explain my diet to my host mom—not sure if she completely understands what a vegetarian is, but I do have to say her meals are fantastic as she stays true to their French roots. One aspect of life that I have come to embrace is the art of two hour-long déjeuner’s (lunch). From 12-2pm, the shops, schools and banks stop what they’re doing as all of France flock to their favorite café, bouchon or resto to enjoy a long, slow meal with friends and colleagues. While it’s been a bit hard to do this everyday for lunch—not too good for the wallet or the waistline—I do occasionally partake in enjoying a nice lunch “formule” (prix-fixe meal) with lots of bread, wine and butter. Dinner is also enjoyed a lot later here, closer to 8 or 9pm, as the French have a sacred “apéritif” ritual which includes indulging in lots of cheese, cigarettes and alcohol before they even sit down at the dinner table for their first course. Additionally, dessert in the form of cheese, fancy mini cakes or hot crepes is also enjoyed after every meal—the French have a sweet tooth and I can definitely get behind that.
As far as my favorite meal, I think my big “wow” moment came to me when I was visiting Grenoble, France for the day and tried a take on the famed “gratin dauphinois” with smooth tagliatelle-like noodles and basil pesto in addition to the warm, creamy cheese it was drown in. I think it’s safe to say my favorite dessert is the classic brioche aux pralines, which I happily enjoyed as a substitute for birthday cake as I celebrated my 20th back in September.
A few more of my favorite foodie spots around Lyon include:
Les Cafetiers—my favorite café with amazing, affordable, hearty salads and super friendly staff
Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse—indoor gourmet food hall with Lyonnais specialties
Marché Quai Saint-Antoine—outdoors market open almost everyday on la Saône; a perfect pre-picnic or Friendsgiving spot
Mumbai Café—amazing Indian fusion food—the chef was kind enough to make me a plate sampling a few menu highlights!
L’atelier des Chefs—a space offering hands-on French cooking classes, led by professionals
In December I will be dining at one of THE Paul Bocuse restaurants with a few foodie friends—follow my instagram @sweetcarb_oline (shameless plug) to stay in the loop! I cannot wait to see what the next month of holiday sweets has in store for me—hopefully I will be able to bring back a few non perishable Lyonnais specialties to enjoy back at school. Thanks for reading and please let me know if you ever have the pleasure of exploring France’s amazing food culture—I would be happy to chat!
Taste The Culture
Welcome to Fork Tales – The GU Eating Society's blog. Read all about our members' cultural food experiences, right here.