Flavors of France: Lyon pairs exceptional food with some of the world’s best wines

Charlene Peters
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Herald-Journal

At the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, my Scenic Sapphire cruise ship docked last spring to allow its passengers to spend the day exploring France’s third largest city, Lyon.

Unanimously considered to be the gastronomic heart of France, beyond its exceptional food, Lyon is also known for its production of fine quality silk. This exotic and expensive fabric has been made here since the mid-1400s, and its production and sale to such fashion houses as Chanel and Hermes continues today. Almost 1,000 Lyon citizens are employed by this industry.

Thinking about the culinary scene of Lyon led me to an exploration of its food. My similarly inclined shipmate Ryan and I made a beeline to Les Halles de Lyon to shop and grab a bite to eat. This impressive 13,000-square-meter food hall was established in 1971 by legendary French chef and native son Paul Bocuse. The structure spans three floors and is the No. 1 attraction in Lyon.

We breezed through the hall’s 50-plus shops and marveled at its many butchers, chocolatiers and fishmongers, and stopped to gawk at a shop displaying multi-colored strands of marshmallow. But it was the unmistakable scent of Epoisses, a pungent (the name means “completely worth the effort”), creamy cheese made just a few towns away, that drew me to the counter of a fromagerie to purchase a wheel. Then it was on to the boulangerie for the required crusty baguette.

A lunch like this one is commonplace for the French, but we’re Americans on holiday, so we decided to adventure onward and took a seat at one of the in-hall cafes to order a carafe of Provencal rosé and a plate of escargot, baked ‘til bubbly in a blanket of otherworldly French butter and tons of garlic. Heaven.

The following day, our Scenic Sapphire ground tour led us 45 minutes north of Lyon, to the Beaujolais Hills. The clay soil of this renowned wine region grows red gamay grapes spanning 10 crus (growth regions): Moulin-a-Vent, St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.

We passed endless rows of curiously configured vines — five branches originating from one central stem — that viticulturists call “goblet style.” We were en route to medieval Perouges, a hilltop village of fewer than 100 souls. There, I stood in front of a church with dense stone walls dating back to the 1400s. Also typically medieval was a nearby carving cut into the trunk of a linden tree — of King George slaying a dragon.

I could not leave the town and its cobblestoned streets without a takeout window stop for a slice of the region’s signature sweet: galette praline. It is served in pizza-shaped slices, but not at all savory. Rather, this shortbread-like pastry is topped with gooey almond praline, in a vibrant pink shade that is a riff on the area’s summer roses.

Our day continued with a drive through the Golden Hills, onward to Oingt, a village 10 miles from Lyon “as the crow flies.” For those of us on the road, however, it was a long and hilly drive. But we eventually arrived in Oignt, where the houses are made of shimmery copper-infused limestone. Beautiful. Gamay grapes reign supreme here, too, although 2% of Oingt’s wine production is devoted to chardonnay.

Next, we visited a castle. Since 1566, generations of the same family have owned Château de Montmelas, a castle that was built, and built onto, in the 10th, 12th, 14th and 17th centuries. The chateau’s current resident is an actual count — his wife, the countess, graciously gave our group a tour of the historic and fully furnished premises.

The tour ended with a wine and cheese tasting, and we enthusiastically sipped the local chardonnay with its prototypical buttery mouthfeel and lightly acidic finish, paired with chunks of Alpine cheese.

The tasting continued with a 2013 Beaujolais. This wine, made from gamay, is generally not barreled or aged but drunk fresh after the autumn crush. Despite its advanced age, I found this bottle to be most interesting: simple and tasting of the fruit itself. A 2016 Beaujolais had a palate bursting of cherry, with slight aroma of mustiness and little evidence of oak.

As my cruise expedition ended, I stayed in delicious Lyon for one more night, the better to stroll through the city’s streets and savor one final Lyonnais meal. I did so at Le Bistrot de Lyon, where a sprightly mesclun salad with jamon (ham) and one perfect poached egg satisfied my Lyon lust. Fin.

Charlene Peters is a travel writer whose passion is exploring global tastes. She can be reached by email: SipTripper@gmail.com.