Monsieur Paul

We were in Lyon last weekend when news came that Paul Bocuse had died.

It was somehow appropriate. Monsieur Paul, as he was affectionately known to all who knew him professionally, was not just the pope of French gastronomy but an icon of Lyon.

People would say ‘Bocuse’ the same way they would say ‘Versailles’ or ‘Deneuve’. Meaning the ultimate in fine food, glittering interiors or female beauty (although personally I could never see what all the fuss was about la grande Deneuve, even in her heyday.)

The grand chef was just another reason for us to move to Lyon. “It’s only a hour from the Alps,” or even “It’s France’s second largest city,” were nothing next to: “It’s the capital of French cuisine — Paul Bocuse has his famous restaurant there.”

Right. Like we would ever be able to afford to eat there.

Where we could afford to eat was in Lyon’s popular restaurants known as ‘bouchons’, where pots clattered and the staff were known for their efficient service and lively repartee.

Such memories we have of Café des Fédérations, which we frequented in every sense of the word. Like most of its fellow bouchons, literally holes in the wall, it didn’t look like much. Red-checkered napkins and hard wooden chairs, pigs on every wall and white-coated sausages hanging over the bar. But the ambiance! A steady stream of mostly faux but highly entertaining insults ran between the man behind the bar and his mouthy waitress. And the food! Simple and rich, in all the splendour of the Lyonnais tradition; that is, simple fare, served perfectly. Poule de Bresse, pig in every way possible, lentils and salads for greenery. Crème brulée for dessert. All washed downs with multiple ‘pots’ lyonnais. Wine by the pot, that’s for me!

And just what, you ask, does this have to do with the eminent Monsieur Paul? Everything, in fact. Bocuse trained with the renowned ‘Mères lyonnaises’, those women who took simple home cookery to the art form: La Mère Fillioux, la Mère Brazier and Mère Bourgeois. (Read here about Eugénie Brazier.)

And although he attained heights of fame and influence to which none of those women would have aspired despite their Michelin-starred status, he kept a love of simplicity in his cuisine that owes a lot to its origins in Lyon.

In my former life as a translator, I once adapted the texts for a CD-ROM about Paul Bocuse and his famous restaurant in the Monts d’Or, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonge.

It was back in the day when multimedia presentations were all the rage. I remember it had little icons of the chef in his tall toque as a graphic element throughout. It told the story of his humble beginnings and rise to the Legion of Honour. It was fun to translate and was one of the rare pieces I was actually proud to have worked on.

I still have never eaten chez Bocuse. Perhaps we’ll go one day, although I’m not a huge fan of la haute gastronomie. Life is full of surprises. Like that tattoo lurking on a famous chef’s shoulder.

Bon appétit, Monsieur Paul!

Tant de chemin parcouru

I like to look back. Whenever I take a train or a boat I sit backwards, facing the departing view rather than what is rushing towards us.

It occurs to me that at this time 25 years ago we were getting ready to cross the pond. The contents of our lives were on a container ship, our two Frenchies were checked in with our luggage, and we were squeezed into two economy class seats on an Air France flight to Paris with a squirming two-and-half-year-old. I think it was the last time we got away without paying for an extra seat for our son, who is now 27. Our daughter, who turns 24 this year, was in the active planning phase. Enough said.

 

So much water under the bridge, tant de chemin parcouru as we say in French. We moved from my in-laws’ house in Paris to Lyon in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.

Actually, that is untrue. We look back a lot, or at least I do. The years have this way of flying by, and it’s only by looking back and seeing where you’ve been that you get a sense of how far you’ve come.

Where were you 25 years ago?

Belle lurette

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The French use the expression ‘depuis belle lurette’ or ‘il y a belle lurette’ when it’s been a good long while since the last time you went somewhere or saw someone.

It had certainly been that. ‘Belle lurette’ since we’d set foot in the capital of the Gauls. So we decided it was time to go back and visit our former hometown of Lyon.

In late December, many of the lights were still out for the Fête des Lumières, the festive tribute to the Virgin Mary that sets the city of Lyon alight each year on December 8th – and now draws coachloads of tourists to witness its famous illuminations.

When we first settled in Lyon back in 1992, the event was little more than a tradition of lighting candles in coloured jars – les lumignons – and setting them along your window ledge.

LumignonsColores

We only lived in the city proper for five years, but they were busy, productive years. Lyon was where we made our first home in France, where our daughter was born, where both our kids went through the school system from maternelle all the way to the baccalauréat. It was where we found work, started our own businesses, made friends and put down roots. When we moved to the nearby Monts du Lyonnais, we continued to commute into town each day. Lyon felt like home.

It wasn’t an easy nut to crack. Lyon is known to be something of a secret city, whose inhabitants live by the motto, ‘vivons heureux, vivons cachés’. Meaning that a happy life is one hidden from public view. (An expression that eluded me at first but one I’ve come to truly appreciate).

Since we moved to the Haute Savoie we had only gone back to Lyon on flying visits to family and friends. We had not set foot on the Presqu’île formed by its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône, in years.

So we booked a hotel and stayed in the heart of the city. It was a trip down memory lane for us (“You remember that time when…?”), with much of the city achingly familiar.

only-lyon

Yet so much has changed. The city has come up in recent years; there’s a livelier, more modern vibe. The streets are lined with trendy shops, bicycles are everywhere, more languages are spoken. There are still the traditional ‘bouchons’ Lyonnais, the simple restaurants that serve classic French bistro dishes with a lot of warmth and clatter, like the façade shown above. But they are not the only option, as they were all those years ago when we dropped a pin on the map and settled in Lyon.

Il y a belle lurette.

And there are still the other kind of ‘bouchons’ that Lyon is equally famous for. The traffic kind.

bouchon-lyon

Have you been to Lyon? What do you remember?

La bise

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Winds on Lac Léman by Calimo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Whoever decided to name the north wind ‘la bise’ had a good sense of humour. Certainly it puts colour in your cheeks and is perhaps a poetic metaphor for the double-cheek kisses – les bises – the French are known for.

But the wind that is blowing down Lake Geneva from the Swiss Alps to the Jura at the moment is not a kiss but a face slapping, chill-your-bones blast that has me swaddled in a huge wool scarf and cap pulled firmly down to my Canadian nose as I bravely step forth. And still my head aches as I make my way into its cold embrace.

La bise is just one of several winds that blow around le pays du Léman. For someone who grew up by the Great Lakes, this lake is not that big – although a quick Google tells me it is one of the largest in Western Europe. How many winds could one lake have? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the 12 different winds that regularly soufflent upon us, from the Joran to the Rebat. Surely this is why Lake Geneva is so popular for sailing.

I have always loved the wind. It stirs my romantic soul and makes me feel a bit more alive than when the air is too still and warm. But a lively breeze is one thing. The bise, and its evil cousin, la bise noire (the black kiss), are something else all together.

When we lived in Lyon, it was in horror of the wind. We also felt the bise there – although most people called it the Mistral. The worst was le vent du sud – the south wind – reputed to bring on terrible headaches. I thought this was a meteorological effect until I learned that it brought the foul smell of gases from the refineries to the south of the city. And then there was the hot, dry Sirocco, blowing all the way from the Moroccan desert to leave a layer of red dust on our car.

When the north wind blows as it has this week, rattling the roof and causing our wood-frame house to shiver its timbers, I remind myself how much I love living by this lake, sandwiched between two rows of mountains, riding on ferry boats and seeing the little kids out learning to sail in summer. They call their tiny sailboats ‘les optimists’.

I am inspired by their optimism to note that the bise often brings bright blue skies along with the cold. That the days are already getting longer. Soon winter’s icy kiss will be nothing more than a bit of colour in our cheeks.

How do you feel about the wind?

Outrés

Hand-pressing wine

Here in France it is traditional to celebrate the arrival of les vins primeurs – the most famous of which is the ‘Beaujolais nouveau‘ – on the third Thursday of November. It seems that this year our attention has been on politics and past terrorist acts rather than festivities around the young wines. There’s been barely a ripple in the news and even in the shops I’ve seen little noise around les vins nouveaux.

To be fair, the French are not crazy about young wines, believing that they give you a headache, and tend to view the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze as a marketing scheme to attract foreigners. It has certainly been more successful overseas.

I happen to enjoy the young wines of the Beaujolais and the Rhône valley and over the years have been an avid consumer of our local produce.

A few kilometres away from our former hometown in the Monts du Lyonnais was the village of Taluyers. The road to that town had but one attraction for us, but one that kept us coming back regularly for years: Le Domaine de Prapin, a grower of the wine called Coteaux du Lyonnais. The Chardonnay whites were truly magical, the still hand-pressed Gamay reds pleasantly fruity. Best of all, we discovered that you could buy directly from the producer. Our car beat a path to their door on many weekends.

wine-skinWe were delighted to learn that you could buy the wine in bulk, en vrac, in a box container with a vacuum-packed bag inside, to keep the wine from spoiling (chance would be a fine thing), and a handy spout for serving. What the English pragmatically referred to as a bag-in-a-box, they simply called une outre, the term loosely referring to a traditional wine skin.

Not only was it more economical to buy the wine this way, it was a relief to have fewer bottles to dispose of. Glass is recycled in collective containers on street corners in France, and there were times when I was tempted to take out our recycling by cover of night – if it weren’t for the noise. Our empties made a satisfying smash as they landed in the container but it was impossible to get rid of them discreetly. I felt as if I should wear a sign that said ‘I am not an alcoholic, I support the local produce’.

In a comedic quirk of the French language, the word ‘outrer’ means to push to the limits of the acceptable, to the outrageous or outlandish. When we ran out of wine, my husband would joke that we were ‘outrés’ and make a quick run over to Prapin.

Outrageous.

Have you enjoyed any of this year’s vins nouveaux? Do you care whether your wine comes from a bottle or a box?