A Gourmet Weekend in Lyon

Well that took forever to post something: my kids are suddenly using this computer so much for their homework that my minutes are counted! Where was I?  Ah yes, my weekend in Lyon: it was a real treat. After experiencing Chez Hugon, a fabulously friendly Lyonnais bouchon with its traditional sausages, poulet au vinaigre and quenelles de brochet, it was time to venture out next day to discover Lyon’s sweet side.

market in Lyon

No trip to Lyon is complete without visiting Sebastien Bouillet.  I’d already seen his chocolate and macaron artistry at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris and had previously heard of his ‘MacaLyon‘, which provided inspiration for a half-dipped macaron in chocolate which is in the book.

Silk museum in Lyon

First – since we wanted a girlie weekend with a bit of culture thrown in too – we headed to La Maison des Canuts. The Canuts were the Lyonnais silk weavers who mainly worked in this hilly area of the Croix Rousse. The museum takes about 50 minutes to visit (if you do the guided tour in French) otherwise you can stroll around willy nilly while you’re left imagining the poor conditions these weavers had to work in, as if out of a scene of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Sebastien Bouillet is only a ten minute walk away from the museum to the market square, at Place de la Croix-Rousse.

Sebastien Bouillet Patisserie Lyon

With the bellowing of an accordion nearby to get us into the French pâtisserie spirit, the boutique’s front was more like a make-up stand in a Parfumerie.

Chocolate lipstick by Sebastian Bouillet Lyon

Don’t be fooled: these are chocolate lipsticks from his ‘Chokola’ collection! What about some lip-smacking milk chocolate and passion fruit to hide in a handbag along with some chocolate lips, chocolate caviar… and some candied chestnuts (perhaps the latter would be messy)?

best chocolate and patisserie Sebastien Bouillet Lyon

His pastries were so inviting and at a fraction of the cost of the same kind of elegant, creative combinations you find in Paris. With only a 2 hour ride from Paris Gare de Lyon (surprise!),  I need to pop on that TGV train more often. He also runs a prestigious pastry school, Gâteau Ecole.

Best pastries at Sebastien Bouillet Lyon

His colourful array of macarons are just as tempting with inspiring flavours such as quince, chestnut, gianduja with green tea, chocolate, praline, salted caramel…. what would you choose?

macarons Sebastien Bouillet Lyon

Another culture break down the hill is well worth the visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the second biggest art gallery in France after the Louvre. I love seeing the impressionists paintings of scenes taken along the river Seine.  This Sisley landscape is just up the road from us, in Marly-le-Roi. Nothing much has changed.

Alfred Sisley Marly le Roi France painting

Just next door to the Gallery is a welcome sweet neighbour, Chocolatier Voisin. Léon Voisin’s chocolate shop’s doors have been open since 1897. He created the Lyon speciality, Le Coussin de Lyon: a bright green cushion of chocolate ganache, almond paste and a hint of Curaçao. If you love marzipan like I do, this is a must!

Voisin chocolate shop in Lyon

The friendly staff at the art gallery told us to try Voisin’s delicious praline quenellesThey’re officially classed as a national delicacy as the patrimoine nationale de la confiserie.  Again nutty, they’re made with grilled hazelnuts and almonds and covered in white chocolate.

Les Coussins chocolates speciality from Lyon

I felt like a bit of Opera coming on but we’d missed the guided tour (Saturdays at 1pm) so instead we headed to rue de la République.  Or rather, we tried to.  What is it with these Smartphone map apps?  I always get lost with them.

Lyon Opera House

Instead, we found it the old-fashioned way by asking a friendly Lyonnaise the direction. Walking in Lyon is like being in Glasgow but chatting in French: the Lyonnais are so friendly they even ask where you’re heading and how they can help. It’s a long way from Paris!

Lyon pastry shops and tea salons

At 4 o’clock, it was time for another kind of Opéra, with a cup of tea. Bingo! We found our recommended Salon de Thé or tea salon at La Maison Debeaux. 

best Tea salon Maison Debaux Lyon

Their traditional pink praline tart and brioches were tempting enough but I surprised even myself by pouncing on a giant coffee macaron with mascarpone cream, the ‘Maccarpone‘. Well, macarons are gluten free, after all.

Our particularly adorable server, on the other hand, wasn’t quite in agreement with my tea order: I’d asked for one of their gastronomic teas with a petit nuage or cloud of milk. But Madame, this kind of tea shouldn’t be taken with milk. Instead he brought me some Earl Grey, or Thé à la Bergamote, and offered me the most dinkiest looking teapots filled with blue flower and jasmine tea, just for me to try.  Now that was class in a glass teapot. I missed my milk, though!

Maison Debaux best Tea Salon Lyon

When most gastronomes think of Lyon, they think of Paul Bocuse.  This time around I wanted to try the Tetedoie restaurant, run by the brilliant chef and President of the Maîtres Cuisiners de France, Christian Tetedoie. His menu, Découverte et Gourmandise, merits a post by itself but a glimpse of his sweet treats will hopefully give you an idea why I’d love to return.  This sublime dessert, caramelised pastry with green apple compôte and Granny Smith sorbet was light enough to enjoy his surprise plate of mignardises to finish off the evening – all with the most spectacular views of Lyon.

Christian Tetedoie restaurant Lyon

It was the cherry on the cake – or meringue on the macaron? – of the weekend.  Soon it’s Lyon’s annual festival, la Fête des Lumières (5-9 December – check out their fun video on this site).  Next year we’ll need to organise another trip and discover more of Lyon’s sweet side. What do you think?

 


 

Disclaimer: All tastings and financial indulgences were purely my own. Ridiculous!

Mastering the Art of French Eating in Lyon: Chez Hugon

When I met my journalist friend, Ann Mah, for a chocolat chaud and macarons in Paris this summer, she was radiant with the prospect of ‘twins’ on the horizon: a baby girl soon to be born in New York and her new book, Mastering the Art of French Eating, which has just recently been published by Penguin Viking. Had I known Ann at the time, all alone in Paris for a year as a diplomat’s wife – not unlike Julia Child, as the title suggests – while her husband was assigned a post in Iraq, I would have loved to have joined her. You see, in order to combat loneliness in the City of Light (and I know what that’s like at first – not easy), she embarked on a gastronomic adventure around Paris and the rest of France.

As David Lebovitz says on the back cover, “Her personal culinary tale will have you packing your bags”. I didn’t think that before I’d even got to the Salade Lyonnaise recipe at the end of Chapter 4, I would have booked a weekend in Lyon! It was about time, after a long haul of being stuck in the house with back problems and builders. Besides, in over twenty years I’ve lived here, I’ve only passed through Lyon en route to visit my French parents-in-law in Provence. As France’s gastronomic capital, how could I have just gone through its tunnels under the Saône and Rhône?

One of Ann’s favourite addresses in Lyon is a typical bouchon eatery, Chez Hugon. I’m not going to give you all the gastronomic history here, as she beautifully documents it in her book but, as a first introduction to Lyon, I can tell you the ambience was contagiously uplifting.

chez Hugon Lyon

Opening the Bouchon door and seeing the long, communal packed tables with diners in full conversational swing, one diner must have seen my panic-stricken face at the lack of space. ‘Mais, you’re too late – there are no seats left’, he teased. Sensing the Lyonnais sense of humour, just as his friend got up to go to the toilet, I grabbed his seat.  Luckily, two wooden chairs were waiting for my friend and I at the end of a table, just cosily next to the kitchen, so we could relish the lively banter from both sides of the restaurant.

As an ex-vegetarian, I didn’t quite make it to the traditional Andouillette tripe sausage but instead went for the lentils with bacon and a Quenelle de brochet, just as Ann had tasted, “served in a puddle of langoustine sauce”.

Just as we were studying the traditional dessert menu, glistening in the fluorescent lights that Ann had mentioned, a couple entered with guitars. My first reaction was, och – there are really no tables left but they took their coats off, opened their cases and started strumming and humming until there was a marked crescendo with Brassens’ songs; to Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose‘; to Renaud’s ‘Tel qu’il est’…Ce qui n’est pas marrant c’est qu’il ronfle, on dirait un pneu qui se dégonfle…. (Trans: It’s not funny but when he snores, it sounds like a deflating tyre’.) 

Chez Hugon Bouchon Lyonnais

Suddenly the chef, Eric, joined his mother in the front and burst into full song, with “Mexico, M – e – x – i – c – o….!” As I downed another glass of Fleury wine (one of my preferred Beaujolais Crus which I prefer on a day like today) accompanied by pears in wine (when in Lyon…), the neighbour at my table was handed the key to the toilet; on a marrow bone.

Chez Hugon Lyon Bouchon

Ann hopes that readers of her book feel encouraged to travel and explore, to ask lots of questions, to embrace their curiosity and be flexible and open to new experiences. Well, Ann, chapeau to you! I’ll definitely be returning to Lyon to discover more traditional bouchon eateries and join in the friendly banter. With ten chapter/regions in the book, from Paris to l’Aveyron, you’ll be ready to pack your bags for a delicious adventure, too.

Don’t forget to devour a copy of Ann Mah’s book, Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris. As a companion to her book, Ann is currently posting a series on her blog, ‘Where to Eat in France‘.

Traditionally today, on the third Thursday of November, let’s give a toast to Beaujolais Nouveau Day!  Chez Hugon is usually open Mondays to Fridays but, exceptionally this weekend, they’re open to celebrate with a few pots of Beaujolais Nouveau.


P.S. Have you tried my favourite caramelised red onion tarte tatin recipe yet?

Silence on Remembrance Sunday


 

France’s Smallest River, Watercress Beds and Soup

As piles of neatly tied bouquets of watercress were stacked high at our local market last week for my Watercress Soup, they instantly conjured up scenes of the watercress beds, or Cressonnières, in Veules-les-Roses this summer. Come join me on a wee jaunt up the watercress road in the Pays-de-Caux in Upper Normandy.

With our all-time dream African Safari cancelled this summer due to my persisting back problems, we finally consoled ourselves and ventured out of Paris with a long weekend in Veules-les-Roses, a sleepy little town on France’s Normandy coast. Julie and Lucie took it like young adults, as the promise of the Big Five game animals were comically replaced by Normandy cows and curious cats looking for fishy leftovers from the seafood restaurants dotted along the town’s seafront.

Veules-les-Roses has two main attractions: it’s home to the smallest river in France, the Veules. It’s the shortest sea-bound river at 1.194 km (about 3/4 of a mile), along which there are three restored 18th Century watermills.

Also, at the source of les Veules river, lies the watercress beds, or Cressonnières. The clear running water’s current of Veules-les-Roses has favoured the cultivation of watercress since the 14th Century. Harvesting watercress is done here by hand with a knife and ties.

The watercress of Veules is known for its fine leaves, its particularly spicy taste and makes the perfect ingredient for a light and healthy soupe de cresson. Watercress is also useful, as it’s always in season.

 

The bunches of watercress that are formed during harvesting are called chignons, when the roots of the stalks come outside the bunch. Luckily these days, harvesting is done wearing rubber boots, rather than sodden feet steeped in 10cm of cold (about 10°C) water wearing clogs with heavy metal leggings!

watercress beds for soup

As Autumn now blows around Paris, comforting spoonfuls of healthy watercress soup help to prepare us for any sniffles or scratchy throats that niggle and nudge as November closes in on us, as it contains iron, calcium and Vitamins A and C.

watercress soup or French soupe de cresson

French Watercress Soup

Watercress Soup (Soupe au Cresson)

A large bunch of watercress
20g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
500ml water
250ml chicken (or vegetable) stock
Salt, pepper
2-3 tbsp cream (optional)

method for watercress soup

1.  Wash the watercress, drain and set aside.

2.  Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion until cooked but not browned. Add the watercress with the stalks, roughly chopped potatoes and cover with the water and stock. Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook gently for 30 minutes.

3. Blitz the soup with a hand blender or in a food processor until smooth. If you prefer your soup less thick, then you could sieve at this point, although I personally love it with the fibre addition of the stalks.

If serving as an elegant starter dish, swirl in a dash of cream and why not surprise your guests with a mini MadMac herb macaron? The recipe is on page 97 of the book.

More on Veules-les-Roses coming up soon. Join in a festival with a difference…

Corsica on the Rocks and Savoury Macarons

Wild waves were crashing on the rocks off the west coast of Corsica last week. We were visiting family around Calvi and, as we were impatient for our fun little nephew to awake from his routine siestas, a windy walk along the ragged coast of Punta di Spanu was perfect to idle away the time.

There’s something rather spooky about the Genoese Towers dotted along Corsica’s dramatic coastline: echoing cries whistle in numbed ears from distant tower-keepers as they prepare for invaders to claim the Island of Beauty.

Corsican Maquis

If only I could have bottled the fragrance of the maquis for you. It’s a heady mix of wild rosemary, thyme, myrtle, wild cistus, laburnum, sage, mint and curry plants. Such an intoxicating mixture of salty, smoky, spicy perfumes come together as a herbal gingerbread smell.

Corsican maquis or shrub

It’s hard to imagine that just 15 minutes in the car inland and you’re already driving in the snow-capped mountains. Donkeys and goats grazing on the higher maquis-floored slopes make life seem at a completely different pace to city life as we know it.

San Antonino perched Corsican Village

San Antonino, one of the beautiful villages of France which inspired ‘l’Enquête Corse’

We were in the clouds. I found my hermit-like hideaway although judging by the look of the car fallen by the side of the mountain, there wouldn’t be much of a getaway too soon if I suddenly changed my mind. Tea in Montemaggiore? Pas de problème: there was even a tiny bar that could bring back the life in my cold hands with a hot cup of Lipton while the children had… ice creams. Well, that’s all there was and who would want it any other way?

Mountain scenes of Corsica

I had a confession to make: I had this burning desire to just drop everything and hijack the tea-room opposite the chapel up at the Citadel in Calvi. Who wouldn’t relish the views up there of the sea and the land, making macarons, fiadone (Corsican cheesecake) or éclairs all day and awash yourself with pots of tea? Or perhaps the local tipple, Cap Corse, an addictive bitter-sweet apéritif made with quinine?

Churches Calvi and Corsica

The photo (top right) is all that’s left of the house reputed to have been Christopher Columbus’ birthplace. What do you think?  Was he born in Corsica or Italy? Corsica, of Corse!

Our trip’s grand finale was dinner at the wonderful restaurant, U Fanale. The chef, Philippe Gouret delights visitors with a surprise of terre et mer, where land meets sea. At first I tried the starter of salmon and charcuterie, gingerly tasting the salmon first – but when I tried them both together it was just fantastic! Our friendly server introduced us to a newcomer wine from Calvi, le Clos des Anges. Unfortunately, the Irish winemaker, Richard Spurr wasn’t around during our visit but next time I’m dying to stock up on their white oily nectar.

Inspired by the chef’s ideas, I loaded up on Corsica’s famous charcuteries and as soon as we returned home, found some beautiful Scottish Salmon at the market. Served with slices of Lonzo (my favourite as it’s a filet cut without much fat) and marinaded julienne strips of chiogga beetroot (in olive oil and Xeres vinegar) to garnish, just like the chef had presented his starter dish.

My personal touch?  I added some finely chopped bits of Ariane apple and a beetroot and horseradish macaron (recipe in Mad About Macarons – there’s a whole chapter on savoury macarons.) It’s a Scot mac that meets Corsican land and sea in the middle. Or I should just have Jill and Antoine…

Land-a-hoy – or perhaps that should be Mac-ahoy!

 

A Fruity Weekend at the King’s Vegetable Garden in Versailles

I lost the plot this weekend. Blame it on the persisting torrents of rain. So when the skies suddenly cleared on Sunday, my daughter and I escaped to the King’s Vegetable Garden (Potager du Roi) in Versailles.

Their gates have been open to the public since 1991 but this October weekend was a special Saveurs du Potager, an annual culinary festival to showcase the diversity of the 300-or-so varieties of fruits and vegetables that are grown here.

Classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 30 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables are produced each year at the Potager du Roi, thanks to the horticultural school’s students next door. While Le Notre was responsible for the gardens at Versailles, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie was responsible for building the potager-fruitier over five years (1678-1683) and ensuring the best quality fruit and vegetables on the royal table. La Quintinie’s statue surveys the daily pickings plus the continuation of experiments and new gardening techniques.

Louis XIV was so proud of this garden that he loved to bring visitors such as the Doge of Venice on a tour here, passing the exotic Orangerie en route. The King could show off his own pruning techniques and explain how his talented gardener managed to ensure that asparagus or strawberries could arrive 3 weeks before season by using different manures.

potager du roi Versailles

My eye was drawn to the aromatic part of the garden since I love decorating dishes with edible flowers.  Bourrache or borage is popular here but I can tell you – I made a mistake the other day, decorating a chocolate mousse with one of these flowers.  Tasting one of these flowers was like eating a light fishy cucumber.  Not quite the best chocolate partner. I would suggest adding borage flowers to savoury fish dishes!

Nasturtiums were growing in all their glory.  Claude Monet adored eating them in peppery salads from his garden at Giverny. Personally on a cool, October day I was craving these beautiful parsnip plants for a comforting parsnip, round carrot and coriander soup. With a mini curry mad mac… Speaking of spice, ginger plants were also proudly on show in the gardens.

edible flowers King's Vegetable garden Versailles

Nasturtiums, parsnips and a parsnip and Parisian carrot soup & mac

As Lucie and I were completely lost just trying to find the stand to buy produce from the garden, we literally stumbled into the most amazing man-made grotto. Lucie being the adventurer, ran up some crooked, mossy steps and discovered a secret passage below a rickety bridge linking up to a round outlook tower.  As we gingerly descended into the creepy darkness below, this enormous grotto was waiting to surprise us. Just as well we didn’t come in the other way: that middle photo is a whopping great hole that we luckily missed on the roof!

caves in the king's vegetable garden Versailles France

Inside the long-corridored building, various gardening clubs were showing visitors how to create compost, how to create a shelter for ladybirds, make your own apple juice using a press plus how to construct a ‘hotel’ for insects.

I even discovered that Alkekenge is the real name for physalis cages d’amour (love cages – trust the French to be so romantic) that are taking over our garden. Hm. Shall we just stick with love cages? Grrrrr. Much that I love the name, ‘Reine des Reinettes’, they’re not my favourite apples since they’re far too sweet. Floury apples don’t do it for me. Call me boring, but comfort me with Pink Lady or Braeburns any day.  Beurré Hardy, on the other hand, is one of my favourite pear varieties.  So good you just eat them on their own but if you want to make a gluten free dessert, then why not try some chocolate macarons with poached coffee-vanilla pears?

apple harvest King's Vegetable Garden Versailles

The theme of culinary demonstrations for the afternoon was Italian cooking. Lucie and I watched Venetian cookbook author, Adriana Cardin, in admiration as she managed to show us how to make pasta in front of such a fidgety, noisy audience. OK, so she said to make pasta by hand and forget your pasta machine. What more do you want? She gave us all tastings of homemade (albeit thicker than I’m used to) pasta triangles with her cavroman sauce. Did you know that poor man’s tortellini has no filling? I also didn’t realise that the famous Italian ’00’ flour, difficult to find in Paris, is simply “Farine Type 55”. When I think I carted flour in my suitcase back from our last Italian holiday. Duh.

cookery demonstrations King's Vegetable Garden October Festival Versailles

The last room for us to visit was les épluchures or peelings. Can you see these peeling-inspired chapeaux hats taking off?

Instead the red onion peelings inspired me to make a caramelised red onion tarte tatin, accompanied with a perfectly mineral Sauvignon blanc wine from the Loire Valley to bring out the honey flavours – a simple yet delicious feast to finish off the royal weekend.

Potager du Roi (King’s Vegetable Garden)
10 Rue du Maréchal Joffre
78000 Versailles

January – March: Tues & Thurs 10am-6pm
April-October: Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
du mardi au dimanche de 10h à 18h
November-December: Tues & Thurs 10am-6pm; Sat 10am-1pm