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Pardon my French!

A foodie journey through Lyon, not on usual touristy maps, courtsey Trafalgar, a company promoting experiential travel, lets me discover some “real” French food…

By Anoothi Vishal


We’ve crossed the Pont Bonaparte, beautiful in the night, hanging low on the Saone river, into the Rennaisance heart of old Lyon. Hamish, our travel guide, pauses and says dramatically: “And now I will let you lose on a street with a hundred restaurants!”

It’s a foodie dream come true. But I have been expecting no less: Lyon, after all, has become the modern centre of French gastronomy in a way touristy Paris and even vibrant, bustling Marseilles are not. At the very centre of its formidable reputation are not some Michelin-star restaurants (though there is a fair sprinkling of these too here), or modern bars but bouchons, those sans-frills, traditional Lyonnaise insitutions that have suddenly become foodie chic these days.

Despite that Lyon is hardly a popular stop on travel itineraries. Certainly not on Indian ones, preoccupied with speed-touring Paris, Cot d’Azur, Monaco and possibly some of the more popular wine countries. It is still in many ways one of those “hidden” towns — that despite its size and economic stature remains not so obvious to the touristy eye.

Of course, I am very much a tourist—but determined to find the elusive and the local that Trafalgar, a new-to-India company into experiential travel, has promised to help me unearth as I take its tour from Paris to Milan, through much of central and southern France. As a result, Lyon is very much on our map—and not just because this is the birthplace of cinematography and the karma-bhoomi of Lumiere brothers (who attended La Martiniere, I am chuffed to know, considering I attended the sister school in Lucknow). Instead, it is those 100-plus buchons that lie on the inner streets of the old town with their shabby-chic air, paper mats, limited menus and homecooked food that have drawn us here.

In many ways, bouchons (meaning “cork”, Hamish, a storehouse of trivia informs us) are like our dhabas. They came up ostensibly as stops for coaches carrying silk (Lyon was known for its silk trade) and were family run—the women cooking, men of the house manning front of the house. As such, food in these involves humbler ingredients—local fruits, veggies, meats, innards, feet and even the wine is non-fancy, served out of thick-bottomed flasks. (I bond over an eminently drinkable but humble Cot du Rhone with five of my Trafalgar travelmates-turned friends.)

In Lyon, some bouchons have acquired a formidable reputation. Chefs from all over the world go scouting for them; and then there are those apparently started by kitchen gods who went back to basics after giving up their culinary stars and stripes in Paris. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, our very own affable celebrity chef, was in Lyon recently with the world renowned chef Paul Bocuse and mentions Chez Paul and Chez Hugon as the bouchons he checked out with typical Lyonnaise dishes such as Saussisons de Lyon (sausages), foie gras and quenelle (creamed fish or chicken combined with breadcrumbs and poached).

Then there are those that other foodie travellers mention like Au Petit Buchon, Cafe des Federations, La Meuniere and Les Bouchon des Halles that enjoys a reputation for clams in butter sauce. My own choice is none of these—it’s just one of those hole in the wall places whose names you may or may not remember post the holiday. But the food is superb. And that’s really the point. Because all bouchons have the same staples usually. Craig, our Aussie friend, tries one of them—sausage made with tripe in a delicious mustard sauce that wipes away all misgivings.

The best food is often made of waste; or at least non-fancy ingredients: I mean, foie gras and oysters, sure, but look at stuff like bouillabaisse, from Marseilles, a couple of hundred kilometres away from here—where bony local fish and shellfish are bunged into a typical Provencal soup base of garlic, onions, tomatoes, fennel, olive oil, saffron, and most importantly orange peel. What high-end dish can match the flavour and potency? And so it is with the simple sausage and mustard.

I also try an excellent fish (pike) souffle in a cheese sauce—but it is chicken surprisingly (chicken feet) and, well, eggs poached in red wine sauce that are house specials. Even if you are not an egg fan, you must dig in—they are well worth it.

You can’t help but pile on calories in France. I have saved the bouillabaisse for the last—when I do visit Nice on the Riviera because Marseille, unfortunately, is not going to be a destination this time round. And I intend to at least have a lovely, genuine hot chocolate somewhere in those arty, expensive villages— say, St Paul’s-de Vence, home to Hollywood celebrities and boho-chic authors, artists, designers (you can dine beneath a genuine Picasso or two at the terribly expensive Colombe D’or). But right now in Lyon, there’s one other staple to be tried: the gratinated onion soup.

It’s been snowing in Paris when I land there a few days before the Lyon sojourn and I have really been meaning to have a steaming bowl of onion soup. At all the touristy Left Bank cafes—popular in the 1920s with Hemingway, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, Matisse and whoever else you can think of—food comes laced with nostalgia. We try crepes and quiches with copious amounts of red table wine and sigh over the fact that we live in the wrong century. But I have missed the onion soup.

Why do such few places do a competent onion soup? The trick lies in good stock— traditionally made from beef (but, of course, you can use chicken if making it at home). Then comes the proper caramelizing of the onions — a process requiring some amount of patience. (Sweat the onions on medium high heat for around 30 minutes.) A recipe I find (for eight) involves using 6 large red onions, thinly sliced. About ¼ tsp of sugar, 2 cloves garlic, minced, 8 cups of stock, ½ cup of dry white wine, 1 bay leaf, ¼ tsp dry thyme, salt and pepper, 8 slices toasted French bread and 1 ½ cup of grated Gruyere with a little grated parmesan.

In a saucepan, sauté the onions in olive oil until well browned (for 30 minutes). Add sugar about 10 minutes into the process. Once the onions are browned, add garlic and sauté and then add stock, wine, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and simmer until the flavours are blended. Season with salt and pepper. Now ladle out the soup into a common casserole or individual bowls. Put the bread on top and sprinkle cheese. Grill till the cheese bubbles and is slightly browned. Serve hot.

In general French food frightens the average home cook. Chef Mickey Bhoite, chef de cuisine at Le Cirque, shares a doable recipe for this weekend with some precise instructions (do follow them, please): The chicken and sage fricassee. For 4-5 servings, take 1 kg of chicken on the bone, skin removed, 400 ml of chicken stock, 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced, 400 g button mushrooms, quartered, salt and pepper, 30 g all-purpose flour, 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 2 white onions, finely chopped, 250 ml dry white wine, 4 tbsp chopped fresh sage, 15 g cornstarch mixed in 1 tbsp water, 60 ml sour cream and 10 g Dijon mustard.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour, shake off the excess. Heat oil in a large deep pan. Add chicken, sear until browned. Transfer to a plate. Add onions to the pan. Sauté until fragrant, for about 30 seconds. Add wine and scrape up any browned bits. Simmer until reduced slightly. Add broth and bring to simmer. Return the chicken to the pan, add carrot, mushrooms and reduce heat, cover and simmer gently until the chicken is tender and cooked (about 15 minutes). Increase heat to medium. Simmer the cooking liquid for 2 to 3 minutes to intensify flavour. Add cornstarch and cook, until slightly thickened, (for about 2 minutes). Whisk in sour cream, mustard and chopped sage. Serve immediately. Happy weekend cooking!

 Chef Sanjeev Kapoor was also in Lyon recently and gave me two of my favourite recipes that can be done in the Indian kitchen:

200 grams boneless fish fillet, boiled and pureed
4 tablespoons butter for greasing
6 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons refined flour (maida)
200 ml milk
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese for dusting
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
6 egg whites
Salt to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 200° C.
2. Melt the butter in a non-stick pan, add the garlic and sauté. Add the refined flour and sauté on low heat for a minute.
3. Add the milk gradually, stirring continuously, so that there are no lumps.
4. Add the fish puree and cook for two minutes. Add the parmesan cheese and mix. Add olive oil and mix well and turn off the heat.
5. Grease ramekin moulds with butter and dust with parmesan cheese. Chill the ramekin moulds in a refrigerator.
6. Transfer the prepared custard into a bowl. Whip egg whites in another bowl till stiff. Add the salt and mix. Slowly add the whipped egg whites to soufflé base and mix well.
7. Remove the moulds from the refrigerator. Pour the mixture into these moulds and bake in the preheated oven for ten minutes.
8. Remove from oven and serve in the moulds.
4 eggs
1½ cups red wine
2 tbsp butter
2 medium onions, sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced
1 inch celery, chopped
1 inch leek, chopped
2 bay leaves
6-8 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
2 tbsp refined flour (maida)
1 tbsp white vinegar
1. Heat one tablespoon of butter in a non-stick pan. Add the onions, carrot, celery, leek, bay leaves and peppercorns. Sauté for two to three minutes.
2. Add the red wine and salt, lower the heat and cook for five to six minutes.
3. Heat the remaining butter in another non-stick pan. Add the refined flour and sauté for a minute. Add this flour mixture to the red wine mixture and whisk thoroughly so that there are no lumps.
4. Heat water in non-stick pan. Keep a ring in the centre and add vinegar. Break two eggs into a bowl and slowly slide them into the water and cook on low heat.
5. Gently separate the eggs from the ring with a knife and remove the ring carefully. Carefully lift the eggs with a slotted spoon and place on the serving plate.
6. Pour the prepared red wine sauce over and serve hot.

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