When you think Lyon, you automatically think of Lyon cuisine, because this is a city whose reputation has been built on gastronomy.
Lyon owes much of its culinary success to its location, perfectly positioned for the discovery of flavorful dishes.
Fruits and vegetables are abundant, local chicken from the Bresse is world-renowned, cattle from local pastures are the topic of nationwide admiration, dairy products from the nearby Alps are succulent, the rivers are full of delicious fish and the land heavy with mushrooms of every kind. So indeed, location has been kind to Lyon.
This is nothing new and for centuries, Lyon’s location placed it at the crossroads of commerce. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, major markets were held in Lyon, with buyers and sellers converging from different corners of France and even Italy to sell high-quality products, helping build Lyon’s reputation.
Writers sang Lyon’s culinary praises.
Rabelais, a Renaissance satirist best known for his creation of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel (of the “eat, drink and be merry” persuasion), may have been inspired in his writings by the giant Lyonnais commercial gatherings.
Stendhal, one of France’s best-known 19th-century novelists, was quick to say that food was the best thing Lyon had ever produced, not a compliment for Lyon, perhaps, but certainly, one that cemented the city’s gastronomical reputation.
By the 19th century, Lyon’s rich and abundant cuisine was well-known and highly appreciated. But despite this early acclaim, true culinary stardom would arrive later, in 1935. In that fateful year, the food critic and writer Curnonsky, dubbed the “Prince of Gastronomy”, labeled Lyon the World Capital of Gastronomy.
There would be no going back.
Today, Lyon is instinctively referred to as a gastronomic place of pilgrimage, the one city in France you must visit if you’re seeking authentic cuisine – although mind you, this is a bit unfair to the rest of France, which can also boast extraordinary culinary tours de force.
Lyonnaise cuisine remains rich and varied, whether served up in traditional restaurants in Lyon – the “bouchons” originally created to feed the silk workers of the city – or in Michelin-starred establishments, seeking to improve on the original.
If questioned, most visitors to Lyon will list “food” at or near the top of their list of reasons for visiting Lyon.
While the city has innumerable foodie specialties, the following seven are consistently among the most popular and sought-after.
1. Cervelle de Canut
The translation for this dish is rather awful: Canutes’ Brains, a Canute being the name given to the silk workers who once toiled in the workshops of Lyon’s Croix-Rousse district. In fact, it is a type of fresh, white cheese, probably invented by the Canutes during the 19th century.
It’s simple and delicious, unlike its name. Add garlic to the fresh cheese, shallots, chives, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you have a Cervelle de Canut, which you can spread on toasted bread or on potatoes. This is normally served as an aperitif – which in France is an important event – or as a starter.
No one quite knows its origins but according to one story, the name might have come from the impoverished Canuts who, unable to afford lambs’ brains, concocted this instead.
It is difficult to enjoy French cuisine without a love of cheese, and the Saint-Marcellin is a creamy delight made of cow’s milk.
It’s often cited as one of France’s best cheeses, and it is a rare cheese board on which it doesn’t make some kind of an appearance.
This is a local regional cheese from Saint-Marcellin, and became famous when cheese specialist La Mère Richard opened her stand in the Halles Paul Bocuse, Lyon’s upmarket indoor market. And yes, Paul Bocuse, one of the most famous French chefs, was from Lyon.
Saint-Marcellin cheese has been protected since 2013 by an IGP label, which indicates a guaranteed geographic origin, and is bound to be found on any self-respecting traditional menu in Lyon.
3. Salade Lyonnaise
This is a simple salad, as its name implies, but it is something you’ll find in many restaurants in Lyon, traditional or not – it’s that authentic.
The recipe is quite basic: start with green salad, add bacon cubes (lardons), fried croutons, and a poached egg. Pour on the vinaigrette, and eat.
This dish is usually a starter, something you eat before the main meal arrives. In summer, you’ll easily find larger versions that can be eaten as a meal in themselves.
4. Quenelle de brochet
A quenelle is a shape, not a specific food. It’s that flick of the wrist involving two spoons scooping up something creamy or soft and shaping it into a shape that lies somewhere between an egg and a rugby ball.
In Lyon, the authentic quenelle is made of fish, usually pike, or brochet, and is probably the most authentic dish you’ll find in the long list of Lyon’s gastronomic delights. You may also find a quenelle made of chicken, but far more rarely.
The quenelle is made with flour and breadcrumbs and egg and comes with a sauce. If it is a fish quenelle, it will be accompanied by one of the most famous sauces, the pinkish Sauce Nantua, named for a local town and made of crayfish butter.
If the quenelle is made with chicken, it will probably be served with a bechamel sauce.
According to local lore, the dish emerged during the 19th century when an oversupply of pike put fishers in a bind: what to do with all that extra fish?
A certain pastry chef, Charles Morateur, came up with the idea to mix choux pastry with the fish, and the rest is history.
This is a quintessential winter dish, warm and comforting, but even at the height of summer in Lyon, you’ll see customers digging into their quenelles when seated at their outdoor tables.
5. Saucisson brioché
We all know what a brioche is, so a saucisson brioché is basically a big fat sausage covered in − brioche!
This is more of a holiday dish than an everyday dish, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until a holiday to eat it, because you’ll often find it on restaurant menus. It is, however, mostly
It doesn’t get any simpler: the sausage (often with pistachios added) is placed inside the dough, and baked. Once ready, you cut it into slices and voilà. You can eat it warm or cold, and it usually comes accompanied by a small salad.
6. Tarte aux pralines
Pralines are one of Lyon’s favorite sweets. An almond or a hazelnut is dipped in pink caramelized sugar and left to dry. Usually you’ll see it decorating a brioche in a pastry shop, a sweet that dates back to the 19th century.
These days, though, the respectable praline is used differently: in a tart, or pie. It’s a relatively new arrival, invented by Chef Alain Chapel to provide bouchon customers with something they could eat for dessert after their rich Lyonnais meal.
A simple pie shell serves as the base, and it is filled a mixture of crushed pralines, icing sugar and cream. Just make sure it’s cooled off before you eat it!
If you’re eating at a proper Lyonnais bouchon, there’s every chance a Tarte aux Pralines will be on the menu for dessert. You can’t miss the bright red color. (Just beware if you have fragile teeth!)
7. Coussins de Lyon
This translates into Cushions of Lyon, an appropriate name given its pillow-like shape.
Invented by Voisin, a local chocolate artisan, the bright turquoise coussins are made of marzipan and chocolate ganache, all of it flavored with, of all things, Curaçao liqueur.
This is a relatively new treat, created during the 1960s but harking back to an earlier time. The shape, it would seem, was designed to resemble the cushion on which 17th-century Catholics carried a heavy wax candle and a gold crown in the hope that the Virgin Mary would spare the city from the plague.
This is no simple candy: the cushions take four days to prepare!
Foods of Lyon: a final look
Whether new or ancient, these fabulous foods of Lyon have become part of the city’s culinary culture.
In addition to these seven, Lyon has many other typical dishes, several of which inevitably center on offal, such as andouillette, or tripe sausage, usually served with a creamy mustard sauce and renowned throughout France; tablier du sapeur, for the more adventurous, a piece of breaded and deep-fried tripe that requires a certain open-mindedness to eat; and sabodet, a sausage made of ground pig’s head and boiled with vegetables. These may not be on a typical visitor’s list, but they are authentic.
These days, modern trends are lightening the fare somewhat, providing meat alternatives and vegetarian dishes to those who prefer them. But the Lyonnais food tradition remains anchored in its origins, a popular cuisine born of hard work and artisanal know-how.
This guest post was written by Leyla Alyanak of offbeatfrance.com, which goes beyond the baguette to explore France’s lesser-known corners and customs. You can follow her on Instagram or by subscribing to her information-packed newsletter.