“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.