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Friends, I feel a little ridiculous writing about my trip when it’s now been, oh, two weeks since I got home, but before I return to our regularly-scheduled recipe-related programming, I have to tell you one more thing. It’s just a word, really. A sort of vocabulary lesson, if you will. It’s called a bouchon.

When Mom and I first decided to take a trip to France this spring, Paris wasn’t even in the picture. To tell you the truth, it was actually sort of an afterthought. My first priority was Lyon. I’m not sure when or where I got this particular bee in my bonnet, but for a few years, I’ve wanted to go there. Somewhere, sometime, someone had told me that the best food in France could be found in Lyon, churned out of kitchens that haven’t changed for decades and served up by sturdy proprietresses who shuffle around in their slippers. Someone told me about bouchons.

The bouchon, simply put, is a Lyonnais twist on the classic French bistro. It’s similar, but louder, more communal, and with ruddier cheeks. I’ve read a few different explanations of the bouchon’s origins and history, but most agree that the concept is a very old one, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when silk workers passing through town would be fed and watered in rustic local inns. They say that the term derives from the word bousche, an old-fashioned name for a bundle of straw, which would be hung outside an inn to indicate that food and wine were served inside. By extension, the establishments themselves soon came to be called bouchons. [Just so you know, the word bouchon also means “cork” - as in, the thing you yank from a bottle of wine - but apparently it comes from a different linguistic root.]

Tucked away in the narrow streets of Lyon, an ancient city split by two rivers, modern-day bouchons still dish out the same sort of humble food that was served centuries ago. They’re famous for a style of home cooking called cuisine de bonne femme, which Patricia Wells describes as “at once generous, robust, economical and based on the region’s wealth of plump poultry, fresh garden vegetables, tangy cheeses and fruity young wines.” They serve lots of pork, lots of offal, and lots of wine - all on checked red tablecloths, with lace curtains in the windows, wooden tables and chairs, and worn, dented flatware. They’re the kind of place where you make friends with the table next to yours, where you eavesdrop to hear what’s been ordered and trade ooohs and ahhhs as new plates are delivered. They’re the sort of place where the middle-aged Frenchwoman next to you wears shorts and flats and, halfway through the meal, pulls her knees up to sit cross-legged in her wobbly chair.

I much prefer good home cooking to restaurant fare, but bouchons are the best of both. They serve the kind of rustic, heartening food I wish I could make, and I don’t even have to lift a finger.

Mom and I ate in two bouchons in Lyon, and together, they were the best meals of the entire trip. (We were in town for only two days, but if you go, make it three. And don’t miss the traboules in Vieux Lyon.) We have David Lebovitz to thank for our first night’s dinner, at Café des Fédérations. He had recommended it to me, saying that it was “lots of fun and lots of food,” and happily, he wasn’t kidding.

When we sat down, we ordered a carafe of Côtes du Rhône, and with it came a complimentary basket of pork cracklings as big as a newborn baby. They were crisp and delicious, and on the tongue, they melted straight away. I had to warn my mother - twice, I should add - not to spoil her dinner.

Next came the first course, which was served family-style, according to a set menu. The waitress came to each table with four dishes: a platter of local charcuterie and cornichons; a white ramekin packed with housemade wild boar terrine; a bowl of lentil salad with shallots and vinaigrette; and a frisee salad with chunks of ham and hard-boiled egg in a mustard vinaigrette. There’s something about that kind of service that sets people at ease. There’s no gnashing of teeth over what to order, no fussy presentation to besmirch with your fork. While Mom and I traded platters and filled our plates, the businessmen at a nearby table toasted and giggled and loosened their ties.

Next came oeufs en meurette, eggs poached in red wine and served in a brothy sauce flavored with the same. I’ve loved oeufs en meurette since I first tried them in a bistro in Paris, but these were the best I’ve tasted, served in a small white bowl with a big, bent spoon, a single egg floating in a rich, beefy broth spiked with salty lardons.

There was no written menu, so when it came time to order the main course, the waitress recited our options at tableside and then waited patiently while I translated for Mom, and then again while we hemmed and hawed. Among the choices were tablier de sapeur, a Lyonnais specialty of breaded, fried tripe; a pressed cake of chicken liver; a rich, inky stew of pork cheeks; and tête de veau, meat from a calf’s head. I was sorely tempted by the chicken liver, and Mom considered the breaded tripe, but we both settled on quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings served in sauce Nantua, a creamy sauce infused with crayfish. I had a nagging feeling that we’d missed an important chance to try something scary and new - that’s what we were there for, or so we planned - but when you love quenelles as much as we do, you do what you have to. They were delicious.

Then came the cheese. Every table had their own platter like this one. I had to fight hard not to squeal when the waitress set it down.

And then dessert. For Mom, it was a perfect lemon tart, and for me, a cupful of chocolate mousse, which came with a spoon stuck bolt upright in its center. Needless to say, it was quickly removed and put to use.

And then we rolled contentedly home to sleep it off. I’m pretty sure there was a second carafe of wine in there somewhere, but I can’t be certain. I think our dinners rang up at 24 euros each, or approximately 32 dollars. I would pay three times that much to go back.

Luckily, we had another bouchon on the docket for the next night. When I called that morning to make a reservation, the phone was answered by a woman whose voice reminded me, in a trembly way, of a French Julia Child. The whole thing felt very promising. The woman on the other end of the line, I knew, was Arlette Hugon, owner and keeper of the eponymous bouchon.

I had read about Chez Hugon in an article about Lyon’s bouchons in last November’s Gourmet. (If you still have that issue, go read the piece. It’ll make you want to book a flight.) The author of the article had written that Chez Hugon is his favorite bouchon, so it was an easy choice. We arrived to find the lace-curtained door flung open to the warm spring night, a few tables already eating, and Madame Hugon presiding over the dining room in white athletic socks and what my childhood babysitter used to call “house shoes.” The only other employees in the place were her son, the chef, to whom she has passed on her recipes and her stove, and a young girl who laughed jauntily with a group of men at a table by the kitchen. Madame Hugon showed us to a table by the window and plunked the menus - handwritten and slipped inside plastic sleeves - onto our plates. I was smitten.

Unlike Café des Fédérations, where the five-course set menu left room for choice only in the main course and dessert, Chez Hugon offered a three-course menu with multiple choices. Deciding what to eat was damn near impossible. For her starter, Mom chose the salade aux pommes et harengs, a ceramic casserole containing thick slices of warm potato and marinated herring doused in vinaigrette. It was astoundingly good, soaked with vinegar, drippy and slippery in the all the right ways. For a while, I leaned toward warm lentils with sausage, but I wound up with the housemade terrine, the coarse kind of pâté that you eat with a fork, rich with liver and nuggets of meat, lined with a thin white casing of fat.

For our main courses, we decided to share. I would order the poulet aux écrevisses, chicken with a rich crayfish sauce, which was recommended in the Gourmet article. I had seen it delivered to other tables: it came in an orange enameled cast-iron pot with an enormous spoon for scooping up sauce. For her part, Mom decided to satisfy a curiosity we’d both been nursing. She ordered the boudin noir, a thick, generous length of blood sausage served on a bed of caramelized apples.

I have to tell you, that chicken was very nice, but now, two weeks later, I’m still talking about the boudin. I had long wanted to try one, and now that I have, I want another. Beneath its thin, lightly charred casing was a filling as smooth and supple as chocolate mousse, a texture that begged for a spoon. It was heartstoppingly rich, with a flavor I can only describe as dark, sweet, and intensely savory. Scooped up alongside a golden, translucent sliver of apple - think tarte Tatin, and you’re close - it was far and away the finest, most expansive mouthful of the entire trip. You know how I feel about baguettes and pastries and chocolate and cheese. Boudin noir beat them all.

We finished our meal with pears poached in red wine and a brownie-like wedge of bittersweet chocolate cake, but that’s beside the point. The boudin, people, the boudin. God bless the Hugon family. Long live the bouchon! Lyon, I may be marrying a vegetarian in 11 weeks, but you’ve got my heart. Or a good, meaty chunk of it, anyway.

Café des Fédérations
8-10, rue Major Martin
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 04 78 28 26 00
Métro: Hotel de Ville

Chez Hugon
12, rue Pizay
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 04 78 28 10 94
Métro: Hotel de Ville

P.S. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the best chocolate candy I have ever eaten is to be found in Lyon as well. I’m referring to the Kalouga bar from Bernachon, a dark chocolate tablette filled with salted butter caramel. It’s a close second to blood sausage, and I don’t say that lightly. A big thanks are due again to David for his wise counsel.


Anonymous Brett said...

Don't be surprised, Molly, if in a few days you receive an envelope from me. In it you will find a letter demanding that you buy me a new iBook. Why? This post on Lyonaisse bouchons -- especially the boudin noir -- caused me to salivate uncontrolably onto my keyboard which has now short circuited. ;)

4:59 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger tammy said...

Thanks for taking me along. Now, I need a cigarette.

7:10 PM, May 10, 2007  
Anonymous Camilla said...

You've taken me right back there...

I was lucky enough to do an exchange to Lyon when I was 16. I stayed with a family in Sainte Foy for 6 weeks. They didn't have much money and lived four to a 2 bedroom flat, but boy did they eat well. Every dinner had an entree, main, dessert and cheese, and I found myself writing down what we ate every day so I could try to replicate it when I came home. It was here that I discovered endives, maches, creme de marron, racqlette (?) and scoops of blackcurrant sorbet in alcohol for an apertif!

Each dish you pictured had such familiarity to me that I almost cried. You are a food writer extraordinaire and have bumped Lyon right to the top of my itchy feet list, again! Thank you.

7:25 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Fer said...

What a lovely post. I loved how you documented your story with the pictures. Great job. I very much enjoyed reading it!

9:44 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Tea said...

I still can't believe you went for the boudin! Well done, my friend. My feet are itchy indeed.

10:13 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Kirsten said...

Oh how wonderful!! Your writing is so descriptive, warm and welcoming. Almost as good as being there...only I didn't get to try the food.

Thanks for sharing!


10:33 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Pille said...

Oh, and I thought you're about to give us another fantastic bouchon recipe (as in 'bouchon au thon'). Next time in France, I'll make sure to visit one of these places!

11:04 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Janice said...

Bouchon: talk about a life-changing lesson! After reading this glorious post, I'm fighting the temptation not to book a flight to Lyon now. I think it might be my equivalent of heaven. Thanks for detailing everything so beautifully!

11:50 PM, May 10, 2007  
Anonymous Osiris Brackhaus said...

Oh my god. Now I'm struck and will think all of food all day...

THANKS, Molly, from the deepest bottom of my heart.

3:46 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger Fabienne said...

The thick bottomed bottle in your fourth photo is a bouteille Lyonnaise, it is typical for the region and though you find some in Paris, they are native to Lyon and are often used to serve tap water. My grandmother lived in Lyon for many years and though I am vegetarian now, I am glad I got to sample regional cooking when I was a girl.

3:51 AM, May 11, 2007  
Anonymous radish said...

One of my all time favorite dining experiences was eating in Lyon - and yes, my friend and I also tried the boudin noir that time and it was heavenly, especially with the apples. Most times I tell people about that experience though, the mere thought of eating that, makes them recoil in disgust. Oh well. Oh and the traboules - how incredible are those things? I had a great time trying to find them all over the city! Did you, by chance get to go to the Basilica - from which, on a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc?

4:05 AM, May 11, 2007  
Anonymous Mary said...

Molly, thank you. I've always loved Lyon and am trying to convince one of my students that not getting the teaching assistantship in Paris, but in Lyon is going to be the best thing that ever happened to her, with this post, I'm thinking she'll believe me.


6:20 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger hannah said...

brett hit the nail on the head, you could be running into some severe financial trouble here. these culinary diaries are just devine molly...

6:31 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger Mrs. Delicious said...

Thank you for your gorgeous love letter to the boudin noir! Long one of my favorite foods (when you're in New York, have one at Florent -- I'm sure it will pale in comparison to your Lyonnaise boudin, but still delicious), my friends still shied away. I am going to wave your post in their faces!

Everything you described sounds like it would be my Favorite Meal Ever. Off to Lyon! Tomorrow! I wish!

9:30 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger Alice Q said...

Jaysus Molly, that sounds divine. Thanks for sharing!

9:34 AM, May 11, 2007  
Anonymous Marvin said...

What a wonderful post. Your mother was very lucky to have you as an interpreter during meals. Not being able to speak French is one of my worries for ordering food when I visit France for the first time this summer.

10:45 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

wonderful, especially the whimsy in the first photo!

when I began working at Bouchon in Yountville we were told that bistro was a word shortened from bistrot, when means 'fast' in Russian. but that 'bouchon' was the proper name for such an establishment. and that, for some time, the bouchon, like the history of our American Diner, was for men only.

I love that this was an adventure you took with your mother.

11:54 AM, May 11, 2007  
Anonymous Maija said...

The first meal was only $32!?! What a deal! Amazing...

1:52 PM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger Joanna said...

It's not Seattle, but it's close...you can find a very nefle-seeming fruit in Chinatown here in Vancouver...
come up for a visit, it's one of the best food cities anywhere

7:55 PM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger s'kat said...

Oh. My. God.

Freakin' spectacular! Please, please, please feel free to share any more moments from such a swoon-worthy trip.

9:08 AM, May 12, 2007  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

Although I'm a bit of a vegetarian, I enjoyed your descriptions. Also the photographs. I was this close to buying a checked red shirt like those tablecloths just yesterday. So glad I didn't.

7:32 AM, May 14, 2007  
Anonymous rebekka said...

GRAHHHHHHH! Amazing post.

8:11 AM, May 14, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Ah ha, Brett, but do tell: how is it that you're still typing on this "short circuited" keyboard of yours, hmm? Hmmm? HMMM? You can't blackmail me so easily, mister.

You're welcome, Tammy!

What a sweet comment, Camilla! Your memories from Lyon are so beautiful. They remind me of my own time with a host family in Paris. I too was busy scribbling down what we ate each night, because I was so in awe of the care my host mother took in feeding her family. Somehow it doesn't feel nearly as effortless to create those kinds of meals in my own kitchen. Someday, I hope, someday...

Thanks, Fer!

Tea, I don't know what it is about me and boudin noir. I'd been wanting to try it for so long! I just needed the right environment and the right eating partner. Now I can't wait for the next time... xo

And thank you for stopping by to read, Kirsten!

Too funny, Pille! You know, as I was writing this, I felt so absorbed by this particular definition of "bouchon" that I completely forgot about my beloved bouchons au thon and chocolate bouchons. There are so many bouchons to love. Sigh.

Book, Janice! Do it! It really was the highlight of our trip.

You're welcome, Osiris! My pleasure.

Fabienne, thank you so much for telling me about the bouteille Lyonnaise. I had wondered about those bottles, since they were on nearly every table in Lyon. How interesting!

Yep, Radish, we did indeed make it up Fourviere Hill to the basilica. It was incredibly sunny and hot that day - about 85 degrees Fahrenheit - so it was quite the hike! The basilica was astoundingly ornate and so, so beautiful. It was hazy that day, though, so we couldn't see Mont Blanc. Clearly, a return trip is in order...

Oh, I hope so, Mary! She's really very lucky.

Oh no, Hannah! Not you too! What is it with you guys? NO MORE DROOLING! Just keep your lips closed while you're reading, okay? xo

Mrs. Delicious, thank you for the tip about Florent! I'm going to have to look into that...

My pleasure, Alice Q!

I know what you mean, Marvin. Not knowing the local language is daunting, especially for those of us who care so much about food! Most guide books have a small section with food terms, though, so that could be helpful, and I know that I once, a few years ago, bought a little pocket-size book of French food terms for a friend. Ask your local bookstore if they have anything along those lines. Good luck!

That's so interesting, Shuna! It makes me want to go learn more about the word bistro. And bouchon, too. So much to learn, so much to eat...

Yup, Maija! $32! That didn't include the wine, of course, but seeing as we just ordered their house red, it was pretty cheap too.

Joanna, I'm itching to get up to Vancouver! Hopefully soon - maybe this summer. And I will definitely keep my eyes open for nefles...

Aw, thanks, s'kat!

Thanks, Karrvakarela! I fell in love with those tablecloths, but still, I think you were wise to not buy that shirt!

Thanks, Rebekka!

11:24 AM, May 14, 2007  
Blogger Karianne said...


I just nominated you for a Thinking Blogger Award in my latest post. Please check it out when you get a chance.


11:32 AM, May 14, 2007  
Anonymous Caroline said...

Your photographer just keeps getting better and better! What a beautiful, fun post to read. I have been in Lyon many times but never eaten at a bouchon which makes me feel ridiculous now... how could i have missed out!?
Just now I am realizing why we all missed you so much when you were gone. Ready your blog is such a treat!

4:24 PM, May 14, 2007  
Anonymous Leah said...

I'm so sad! My comment must have disappeared.

Well, mostly I think I said something about loving blood sausage but also dying to know more about that wild boar terrine, which made me go wild with food envy. Wild boar is one of all time favorite meats. Oddly. Or not.

6:42 AM, May 15, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much, Karianne! That's so sweet! I really, really appreciate it.

Thank you, Caroline! And don't feel too silly about never having been to a bouchon. They're so hidden away - they all seem to be on narrow, nondescript streets - that it would be easy to miss them if you weren't looking.

Oh Leah! I have no idea what happened to your comment! How weird. Sometimes Blogger baffles me. Anyway, yes, the wild boar terrine! It was made in-house and came chilled, packed in a homey white ramekin with a layer of fat on top. It was quite firm - you had to cut into it with a steak knife - but it had wonderful flavor: rich, earthy, a little gamey, with a twinge of black pepper. So good. I only had one medium-size wedge, since I was trying to save room for the rest of the meal, but now I'm kicking myself. I wish I'd sneaked the rest of the crock into my bag...

6:52 PM, May 15, 2007  
Blogger rob said...

"more communal, and with ruddier cheeks"

Normally I think there is no new way to say anything at all. Then one of your seemingly effortless, beautiful posts surprises me. You are a joy to read.

8:46 AM, May 17, 2007  
Blogger Rosemarie said...

Yum. I'm trying to move back towards simpler foods and seeing that plate of charcoutrie, cornichons, lentils, and salad really hit the spot. I wish we in the US could embrace this fare. While I've never been to a bouchon (and I was in Lyon a few times), I loved going to "auberges" when I lived in Alsace. There was one in the Vosges mountains that made me feel like Heidi.
Cheers - Rosemarie

8:27 AM, May 18, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Rob. Your comment made my day!

I know just what you mean, Rosemarie. I could live on a diet of charcuterie, cornichons, lentils, and salad. It just feels so right.

2:05 PM, May 18, 2007  
Blogger Truffle said...

I am planning a trip soon and noting down every wonderful recommendation. Beautifully written and you capture the place perfectly. Don't rule out a career in travel writing when you're done with that recipe book!

10:16 PM, May 21, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much, Truffle! I hope you have a wonderful trip.

9:31 AM, May 22, 2007  
Blogger kelli ann said...

mmmm.. thank you for the virtual meal(s): photos and descriptions are mouth-watering! what a friendly, warm and brilliant way to eat. gah. it's only 9:30 a.m.: but those checkered tablecloths are so inviting... cheers!

6:37 AM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger carrie said...

Hi Molly, this is my first time on your blog and I am really impressed. i am sure you've heard that before. next time you are in lyon i would suggest a restaurant called Oxalis. It isn't a bouchon but it should be on the lyon resto map. the owner is obsessed with sardines and oxalis. i am a food photographer and have worked with her before. anyways, nice job!

2:42 PM, July 31, 2007  
Blogger Pille said...

We're off to Lyon with K. and our baby daughter (who turned 4 months yesterday!!) in August - and I'm looking forward to checking out some of the bouchons there!

4:36 AM, May 31, 2009  
Blogger breathingmylife said...

Dear Orangette lady, I'm new to this blog and late at this post, but Oh! Lyon - I had to write you a comment!

I went to Lyon on holiday while I was living horrible few months (at least food wise and weather wise) in Germany (after a stay in Paris, to make matters worse, only the loveliest city in the world). It saved me. Baguette with jamon saved me after a cold wintery baguette-starved German stay. But only till I discovered all the lovely innards they stuff into saucissons (Lyonnaise food is not for the weak hearted), and the delicious raviole, and oh the soups and oh the mousse...Lyon is food heaven and its amazing how it or France, or even Europe itself maintains its old ways, its dignity in its Bouchons, proudly the same since forever.
The sun and the food and the sales in Lyon did me in. How I loved it, and this post makes me wistful. The memories make me say 'oh' a whole lot for sure!

2:10 PM, October 14, 2009  
Blogger suzie said...

I came here via Mary….as a south France girl myself I am so happy when I read a post celebrating il fait bon vivre dans le midi!
I am not from Lyon, I am in Carcassonne in the Languedoc and if you like good, honest food, noise and a truth you would love it here too! "Ruddy cheeks", how i laughed!

12:32 AM, December 13, 2011  
Blogger Catie said...

I've been wanting to go to Lyon since I read this post back when you posted it in 2007. I'm finally going to get the chance next month! I made a reservation at Café des Fédérations.

1:27 PM, September 30, 2015  

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