Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/10/14 1:01 PM

Travel: Lyon, a moveable feast – In between bites

I have got to be honest and upfront about it: I had come to Lyon to eat. This city that sits tidily between two charming and seemingly placid rivers, the Rhone coming down from the Alpin glaciers and the Saone coming in from northeastern France, is one that the French, an epicurean nation if there was one, has crowned the king of food.

Gastronomical capital is the official designation. So, can you blame me for heading there, led by my nose, taste buds firmly held in check but barely so…?

Vailankanni Matha

But back to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. Because that’s where I was, in the crypt which was cold, silent and just a little forbidding. As I was heading there, a churchwarden greeted me  and asked if I was from ‘Inde’?Oui, I replied, and that led to a torrent of French from the man, not a word of which I understood. He kept pointing down the steps and nodding hastily, I rushed  down those very steps.In the basement, I was standing in front of a familiar figure and all thoughts of food went out of my head. She was someone I least expected to meet in the French city of Lyon. I stared hard at her smiling face.

The warden was telling me about the figure in front of me, draped in a gold sari, swags of jasmine festooning the alcove in which she stood. It was Vailankanni Matha herself, smiling serenely at me. And on the pillar next to her was inscribed the Tamil words: adho un thai. Here she is, your mother. Close by, a board explained the Vailankanni legend—how the Mother came to a young boy, asking for milk for her infant. A discreet line states that the Vatican has not given its approvalto this visitation story but the numerous candles lit at her altar spoke for themselves.

A bite here, a bite there

That goosebump moment aside, Lyon is really a moveable feast. And I was single-minded where food was concerned. My hosts took me hither and thither, covering almost every corner of this town rich in history. I saw many wondrous sights, I took in a dance show, did the museums, the boat ride, the walk in the park. But sight-seeing was basically things to do between meals.
One night with a fat and full moon hanging low in the sky, the Tour Part-Dieu known to locals as ‘The Pencil’ silhouetted on my left, I partook of a dish of raclette. Though indigenous to Switzerland, which isn’t too far from here, locals have it with small potatoes, gherkins and dried meat like jambon cru (cured ham). We had it with rosette de Lyon, a cured sausage made from pork shoulder that was quite salty though the melting cheese offset it beautifully. We washed the meal down with some splendid Riesling, and dessert was a liberal helping of buttery madeleines.
And the bread, oh the bread. I could write Rimbaud-like poetry about French bread. Break off one chunk, pop in and the taste of garlic explodes in the mouth. Dig into another baguette and taste rosemary; walnut with a bite of yet another.

Farmer`s market

The next morning, I headed north, up the La Croix-Rousse hill, which is known as ‘the hill that works’. It is the old silk-weaving quarter where the fabled Lyonnaise silk was spun and sent all over first France, then Europe. My destination on the crest of that hill was a marche, a farmer’s market, where I lost myself blissfully among mounds of mussels, drummettes of grilled chicken, crisp greens, cheese of the most amazing varieties, pastry and other sugary temptations piled high, as well as the most gorgeous nectarines ever. There was no European reserve in evidence here; the sellers were shouting praise of their wares out loud and some of their claims were being contested equally loudly. Bargaining was heard all around me, as spirited as at any of our bazaars.

Much of the Croix-Rousse district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with portions of th Medieval city of Vieux Lyon. The slopes of Croix-Rousse are known for their traboules, narrow passageways that pass through buildings and link streets on either side. Opposite sat Fourvière, the ‘hill that prays’, where the magnificent Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, several convents, the palace of the Archbishop, and that strange mini Eiffel tower, the Tour Métallique, stood, all accessed by a quaint creaking funicular.

Another day, this time a freezing cold one, and I was at one of the famed Paul Bocuse —the masterchef belongs to Lyon and the city won’t let you forget that — eateries, digging into some quenelle, a mixture of creamed fish, dressed with breadcrumbs and bound with egg; something of an acquired taste, I must confess. Dessert was a tart citron meringue, which, I realised, really does melt in the mouth. Later that day, I headed for the Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a high temple for food, as some person once sagely remarked. At this indoor market, I bought sausage rolls, Saucisson de Lyon, large disks of cheese and fruits like there was no tomorrow, en route stopping to stuff myself with as many macarons as I possibly could. Well, yolo, right?

The city centre is characterised by the broad swathe of the Rue de la République, the sprawling Place Bellecour and a number of old typically Lyonnaise Renaissance high-ceilinged, tall- windowed houses. The old quarter was simply gorgeous, so full of character. What added cachet to this immersion in culture was the frequent forays into chocolateries, boulangeries and bouchons, the last serving only local fare. We buy food and then sit by les berges de Rhone, the riverbank, watching the world go by, waiting for darkness to fall and the lights of Lyon to come on, transforming everything into a veritable wonderland.

Delightful delis

And since no visit to Lyon would have been complete without a visit to the Bahadourian  delicatessen, I duly headed there. This family-run business was set up in 1929 and still stocks an amazing range of exotic spices, aromatic herbs, delights both local and distinctly foreign. I was there for something foreign, a sack of England’s legendary Thornton toffees. The helpful staff was not in the least fazed by my request and found me the toffees after some diligent searching.

Reading up on the food I was feasting on, I found that Lyonnaise cuisine is something of an anachronism. In the 16th century, Catherine de Medici brought cooks from Florence to her court after she married Henry II and they prepared dishes from produce sourced from all around the country—summer vegetables from farms far and near, game from the forests, fish from the lakes, spring fruits and, of course, wines from Beaujolais and the Rhone Valley. Paris is just a two-hour train ride away and today, gourmets frequently come to Lyon just to have a marvellous meal!

Talking of wine, the French writer Léon Daudet wittily observed that in addition to the Saône and the Rhône, Lyon is served by a third river, the Beaujolais, which never dries up and is never muddy. Which is one reason I drank a lot of wine in Lyon, Beauolais and Burgundy, and virtually any kind of sparkling white put before me.

Let me wax lyrical some more on the food, though.

The Lyonnaise potato is spud heaven; the  Quiche Lorraine, Tarte Provencale, crepes and maron glaces, chestnuts candied in sugar syrup, all speak of the sense in living to eat. The days start well with crisp croissants which, I will readily confess, I slather liberally with butter and honey.  In for a penny, in for a pound, or euro. Offal and tripe is popular here but even my gourmandising stomach protested at that.
Oh, and coming back to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. After bidding Vailankanni Matha a fond farewell, we sauntered to one side of the hill, to France’s oldest Roman theatre (16th century BC) and sat down to eat fabulous chunks of salmon garnished with generous lashings of honey mustard, wedged into a baguette.
The sun was still playing hide and seek, a cool breeze, its tinges tipped with ice, was blowing and all was well with the world.

This Article was published in THE WEEK magazine, “TripTease” section on September 8, 2014

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.
Bahadourian delicatessenBasilique Notre Dame de FourvièreBeaujolais winefoods of LyonFranceLa Croix-RousseLyonPaul BocuseRue de la RépubliquetravelVelankanni Matha in France

Sheila Kumar • September 10, 2014

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