Feasting in Lyon

Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler feared he would never feel as intoxicated with the sense of discovery as he once did. But something clicked when he set foot in France's third-largest city.

What surprised me most, however, was the relative absence of tourists at a time when Paris is full of them. Whatever the stats may be, I found the Lyonnais as unjaded, even solicitous, as the inhabitants of any small town. The driver of my tour bus, a pencil-thin woman in her 50s who looked like a Gallic Pippi Longstocking, in bright red lipstick and candy-stripe stockings, urged me not to buy my day-long tour ticket at such a late hour, and so lose money; my taxi driver spontaneously offered me a free map; and, when I stepped out of the metro holding that map, an old man stopped and asked if he could help me find anything. I have always considered the French reputation for coldness undeserved, but this was all more than I expected.

Wandering through the alleys of the Presqu’île one day, I pored over, with some consternation, the window menus of the bouchons: “fowl poached inside a bladder,” “silk-weaver’s brains,” “death’s fingers” and “tripe gratin.” I hardly knew where to start, what I should start with, or, frankly, whether I wanted to start. But I persevered. Blandine had told me that the bouchons were not just restaurants, but “a Lyonnais way of life.”

I settled on the family-owned Le Garet, a bouchon dating from 1918 that is hidden on a side street of the same name near the opera house. I opened the door on a scene from another time, presided over, of all things, by a reproduction of “The Ricotta Eaters” hanging crookedly between an array of old photos and ancient clocks. In the wainscoted smoky dining hall, patrons sat stuffing themselves, their napkins tucked into their collars, their jaws chomping away. They spoke throaty French through full mouths as they decanted pots (crude greenish demi-bottles) of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône into stout glasses, while I sensed an aroma of fricasseeing pork mixed with the bouquet of fresh-cut roses decorating the bar. The spiky-haired hostess, whose orange halter rode up to reveal love handles, seated me at the table d’hôte and urged me, in a squeaky falsetto, to try the quenelle. (“Comment?”) She handed me a menu, and my eyes lit on the first line: “A woman who farts is not dead.” Another Lyonnais dictum followed: “At work we do what we must/In bed we do what we can/But at the table we really try.” 

Thus began the first of my many meals at Le Garet, under the direction of its flamboyant, if rumpled, owners and hosts, Agniès and Emmaneul Ferra (a renowned chef, it turned out), who ceaselessly circulated among the checker-clothed tables, taking orders and chatting with their clientèle. This time, I started with a simple salade de marché lyonnais (lettuce, egg whites, bacon, and hot croutons) and quenelle de brochet à la lyonnaise, which turned out to be a fluffy pike dumpling not really to my liking. On following days, rather than deal with the bizarre dish names, I just ordered the menu Gnafron—Gnafron being the worldly-wise wino character from Lyon’s Guignol (puppet theater). Every meal opened with a basket of warm pain campagnard (country bread), crusty and rich, and a pot of red Côtes du Rhône.

To the menu Gnafron. I first dug into a pile of cold peas laced with baby onions and doused in vinegar. A bounty of steamed potatoes arrived next. I ate and ate, unable to stop.

“Doucement!” cautioned Emmanuel.
He finally brought me the pièce de résistance—andouillette vin blanc, moutarde—a pair of truncated pig intestines stuffed with charcuterie and drenched in tart wine sauce. I set to work on it, truly unable to resist, not knowing whether I would down the meal and live to return, or expire then and there, fork in hand.
Unable to finish, I sat back in my seat. Emmanuel slipped a fromage blanc crème in front of me. I spooned it in and raised my head. Emmanuel was still standing over me, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Dessert, monsieur?” 

“I thought that was dessert.”

“You thought wrong, monsieur. This is not work or the bed. At the table we must make an effort.” He named three or four sweet dishes, but I asked to be excused with a few slivers of vanilla ice cream. Somewhat disappointed in me, he relented.

On one of my last days in Lyon, after lunch in Le Garet, I stopped by Kiosque Bellecour, a café on place Bellecour. For the first time during my stay, it felt like spring. The sun was shining, bright but not hot, and the snow-covered Alps glistened against the azure on the eastern horizon. 

I ordered a glass of Beaujolais from the waitress, a young student with creamy skin and plucked eyebrows, and opened the slim volume of Rimbaud’s poetry I had brought along.“Le Soleil, le foyer de tendresse et de vie/Verse l’amour brûlant à la terre ravie.” (The sun, source of tenderness and life/Pours burning love over the delighted earth.)  Rimbaud may have never visited Lyon, but in a city of mostly gray skies and cool and rain, his words fit the moment.

My waitress brought me the Beaujolais and smiled as she set it before me. After a week in Lyon, my life again felt like a feast, and the wine, once more, was flowing.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

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