Cervelle de Canut

Lyon has such a strong food tradition that it’s often referred to as the stomach of France. There’s an irony in this in that very often stomach is on the menu…more on that below.

Although Lyon has more Michelin starred restaurants than most other places in Europe, it’s not just about fine dining. In fact, in the bouchons, it’s very much the opposite; and yet, that’s what most people come to try – the food of the Bouchons.

The term “bouchon” is used to refer to a plug or a stopper – like a cork. It’s also used in reference to traffic jams. In the case of Lyon, the Bouchon is a bistro style restaurant serving Lyonnaise cuisine.

These were originally places where silk merchants stopped to have a meal, clean their horses and maybe stay the night. The term Bouchon was used then to describe the twisted straw brushes used to clean the horses. Don’t say you don’t learn anything from this blog.

Most of these Bouchons were run by women – Mere Lyonnaises (the Mothers of Lyon) who left their positions as cooks in middle-class households to start their own businesses.

The food of the Bouchon is heavily meat-based and does, shall we say, use the whole of the animal. A whole tradition has been built around pork products and charcuterie. As they say tout est bon dans le cochon – all is good in the pig and nothing is wasted.

Although some of the names of the dishes sound quite fabulous, there’s nothing flash about the ingredients or the way they’re put together. Even though Lyon’s silk weavers, or canuts, couldn’t afford expensive ingredients, they still wanted to show the wealthy middle class that they too had refined tastes so gave their dishes names that gave the impression of luxury and richness – when the reality was very different.

Take the rather beautifully named Le Caviar de la Croix Rousse for example which is, in fact, lentil salad seasoned with cream and cervelas (dried sausage) or smoky lardons (bacon). As an aside, this is quite tasty.

Then there’s the Sabodet – a (wait for it) sausage comprised of ground pork head – the whole head – seasoned with red wine, garlic and nutmeg. Yeah…nah.

Or Le Tablier de Sapeur – or sapper’s apron prepared from…you know what? I’m not going there. Suffice to say I had an entire list – which I’m happy to share with you another time – of things we absolutely weren’t going to mistakenly order…although that didn’t stop hubby from willingly ordering andouillette.

Conversely, there are other dishes with names that would normally turn you off that are actually pretty nice – like Groins d’âne salad which translates to donkey snout salad but has no donkey parts anywhere near it. It is instead dandelion leaves with egg and lardons.

Sure, some of these dishes sound revolting – and not for the faint of heart – but they’re only part of the story. There’s plenty to love about Lyonnaise food. The charcuterie and cheese for a start. Then there’s Coq Au Vin – which comes from this region, well, just up the road in Burgundy; Salade Lyonnaise – a caesar salad on steroids; the famous Bresse Chicken – which is as good as it was promised to be; and Poulet Sauté au Vinaigre – which I made last night…and very yummy it was indeed. If you want the recipe, you’ll find it here.

One of the foodie highlights of our time in Lyon was Cervelle de Canut. This dish is named after the silk workers and translates loosely to silk workers brains. No brains were (thankfully) used in it. The meaning is instead a derogatory one – meaning that it’s soft. It was, perhaps, an indication of the dubious esteem that the silk workers were held in by the more affluent in society.

In any case, the silk workers – or canuts – would start work at stupid o’clock and by mid-morning would be needing a snack. This snack was known as machons (there’s a little upside-down v over the a) and consisted of something like this herby cream cheese, probably some charcuterie and all bits porky served with pots of Beaujolais in a Bouchon in the early morning.  My kind of breakfast. And yes, they’d be back for lunch.

We had this herb-flecked cheese dip served over boiled potatoes in Lyon, like in the photo below, but it’s also good on baked potatoes or slices of toasted baguette.

If you want to be really authentic have it with a glass of red wine or, better still, a communard – a Lyonnaise classic – red wine with blackcurrant liqueur (creme de cassis).

What you need

  • 250g cottage cheese or quark. Choose the full-fat version.
  • 50ml creme fraiche. You can also use non-sweetened greek style yoghurt if you like.
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp chives, finely sliced
  • 2 tbsp continental parsley, finely chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

To serve: boiled peeled baby potatoes or potatoes baked in their skin, or sliced and toasted baguette

What you do with it

  • Place the cottage cheese and creme fraiche in a bowl and mix together.
  • Whisk in the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper
  • Stir through the shallot, chives and parsley.
  • Cover with cling film and pop it in the fridge for an hour

One Reply to “Cervelle de Canut”

Comments are closed.