Saturday, September 30, 2017

Lyon dispatch - "the food" - the best thing that will happen to you

“The food” is good in France, I am told.  And it is.  After a month in Paris, we have relocated more permanently to Lyon, long known as the “gastronomic capital of France,” which sounds like the food here ought to be even better.  Arguable.  Arguable both ways.

The nutshell story of Lyon is that a generation or two of chefs, mostly women, converted a regional urban cuisine into high culinary art and in their restaurant kitchens trained a couple of generations of chefs, mostly men, who continued and extended the tradition.  Many of the chefs were part of the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1970s, an innovative time in French cooking.

At a street food festival I acquired a piece of propaganda about Lyon’s food that is full of statistics.  Four thousand restaurants in Lyon, or one per 334 people.  Michelin stars: 23, three of them belonging to the legendary Paul Bocuse, making Lyon the fourth-most “starred” city in Europe, greatly disproportionate for its size.  477 bakeries, 298 butchers, a paltry 28 fish sellers, but Lyon is not exactly near the sea.  I have little idea what these numbers actually mean.  The density of restaurants does feel thick compared to anywhere else I have been in France, and the bakeries do feel like they are on every other corner.

Lyon’s reputation as a restaurant city means it gets massive numbers of restaurant tourists, thus supporting not just all of those Michelin stars but several more levels of restaurants, including the famous bouchons, specialists in a particular strain of traditional Lyonnaise cuisine.  For writers like Ruth Reichl or Elizabeth David, this food is not especially good, heavy and brown when good food should be light and green.  I love it, but how often can a person really eat at such a place?  Sausages, liver, tripe, huge amounts of butter – I would quickly develop gout.  Similarly, what do all of those Michelin stars have to do with me?  If I ate at those too often, I would quickly develop poverty.  (Please click on “À LA CARTE AND SET MENUS” to see a PDF of the current menu at Paul Bocuse).

It seems that Lyon has become in some ways a kind of restaurant museum city, providing perfect copies of a range of classic dishes rather than innovating.  On an individual level, of course, who cares?  Cooking is in many ways the art of the perfect copy.

Lyon did add an innovation to French cuisine recently.  The taco Lyonnais was invented circa 2001 in a suburb a bit west of me.  It is a North African sandwich, meat and cheese wrapped in a flatbread and grilled in a panini maker.  It thus resembles a Mexican-American burrito quite a bit, a Mexican taco very little.  How the word “taco” got attached to it I do not know, but the sandwich has permeated not just Lyon but France more generally.

See, for example, Takos King, in the Place Joachim-du-Bellay in the center of Paris, the home of “Authentic French Takos” which promise, on the left, to be “The Best Thing That Will Happen To You.”  Just to the right – I took a photo but sadly it stinks – is an O’Tacos, which on that August evening had a long line.  O’Tacos is a franchise that has dropped the identification with Lyon, and has made its own innovation with the Gigataco – more than two kilograms! – and with, I wish I were kidding, eating contests.

The taco Lyonnais is now established French food, even if it is not eaten universally.  My guess is that people with or who will soon have high blood alcohol levels make up a lot of the customers at O’Tacos.  But it is part of “the food” in France, which is perhaps not always good.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Paris museums - but you do go

In the museums you will find acres of the most strange and fascinating things; but all museums are fascinating, and they do so tire your eyes, and break your back, and burn out your vitalities with their consuming interest.  You always say you will never go again, but you do go.  (Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Ch. 16)

I went to a museum or museum-like location almost every day that I was in Paris, sometimes, even, if they were small enough and I was fool enough, two a day.  I have now been to a small fraction of the museums of Paris.


The Museum of Art and Design had the first airplane to cross the English Channel (the top one pictured, I think), and a steam-powered bus that was the first motorized vehicle allowed to drive in Paris, and a diving suit that never worked but looks cool, and, what else, Lavoisier’s test tubes, and a display of the evolution of the eggbeater, not prominently featured, but they had it.

This is basically the French patent museum, full of prototypes, dead ends, and revolutions  Amply strange and fascinating.

On the same day, I went to the Museum of the National Archives, both museums reminding me that I am in a capital city, where amidst facsimiles of Napoleon’s will, the Edict of Nantes, and the letter authorizing the Albigensian Crusade, there was this:


It’s the Infernal Machine – each pipe is a firearm – that nearly assassinated King Louis-Philippe in 1835, and did kill eighteen other people.  A hand-constructed, terrible object, not a facsimile but the actual fragment of history, set out among the charters and constitutions for some reason.

The museums of Asian and Pacific art were as strange and fascinating as anything in Paris.  The small-scale Musée Cernuschi, the Guimet (ancient) and Quai Branly-Jacque Chirac (more recent).  What Surrealist ever bettered the wooden Melanesian reliquary, part tuna, part shark, impaling a little man on its beak, and containing a human skull.  This object did not come to Paris until 1935; the Surrealists who saw it must have despaired.


The objects in the Western and non-Western museums are in deep conversation.  The 1845 J. M. W. Turner painting at the Louvre (right), which I swear looked more orange in person, and this Australian dream painting by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, which depicts the dream of a mouse (below), seemed to have a lot to say to each other.  Formally, I mean.  When I came across the latter, I thought “Didn’t I just see this at the Louvre”?


That Turner was the last painting I really saw at the Louvre.  Where I got the strength, I do not know.  It was getting late, the crowd had become preposterous, and I was no longer looking at art but at people looking at art, or more precisely at people taking photos of people taking photos of art.  And who could blame them.  I was in the long red gallery filled with the most famous French paintings – Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” and Napoleon in a number of monumental scenes.  How is anyone supposed to actually look at these things, as paintings, as art, even without the company of hundreds of other people.  We were mostly there, like those in line to see “Mona Lisa,” to acknowledge the celebrity of the paintings.

When I start thinking like this, it means my vitalities have been plumb burnt out, and the smart thing is to trade the museum for coffee, which is what I did.