Cervelle de Canut

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

L is for…

I’ve taken on the challenge of an A-Z during April – one post each day on a chosen theme. My theme? Books and writing, of course…

L is for Lyon

We’ll be in Lyon later this month and there’s so much about the place that’s already firing my imagination. Sit back while I weave the beginnings of a tale…

If you were to look at a satellite image of Lyon – which you’re probably not inclined to do but please, go with me on this – you’d see a few streets running parallel to the river but not many side streets connecting them that actually run down to the river.

This isn’t a problem if you’re a tourist – so you have to walk an extra 200m, what of it? But it is a problem if you’re a 15th-century silk trader and you’re carrying heavy bolts of fabulously precious silk.

Ok, I’m going to stop right there for a second as the image and the idea develops – 15th century and silk trade.

So, you’re a 15th-century silk trader carrying heavy fabric and you need to get to the river quickly…what do you do? You start to take shortcuts through houses and courtyards and private passageways to get your precious cargo between the river and the city and vice versa. That’s what you do.

We now know this network of passageways as traboules – a word that comes from the Latin trans ambulare which means “to cross” – and Lyon has hundreds of these.

Another pause while we picture this – 15th century, silk traders, a network of passageways to the river and a waiting cargo ship. The colour of the silk striking against the murkiness of the candlelit passageways. Yep, the image and the idea is beginning to get clearer. I’m thinking smuggling and other dark deeds…

Right, back to the history. Although these alleys were associated with the silk traders in that the traboules kept the fabric dry as well as provided a convenient shortcut, they’ve been in Lyon at least since the 4th century.

You see, back in the day, Lyon was a bit of a poster child for the Roman Empire. Signs of this are still around – with the structures apparently still quite impressive. I’ll let you know after we visit them.  It makes you wonder what the Romans knew about building back then?

But I digress. Lyon was important  – or Lugdunum as they called it, which doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lyon – partly because it was a handy stop-over point, but mostly because it has two rivers. The Rhone curves through the centre of Lyon as does the Saone.

Anyways, once the Romans reluctantly left town, the aqueducts bringing water to the city started to fail – a little like an iPhone at the end of its warranty. People started building closer to the river and the first traboules were built around this time to allow people to get from their homes to the water quicker.  Yeah, not much of a story there – I think I’ll stay with the 15th-century silk traders.

These silk workers, known as canuts had to eat… so let’s move forward a couple of hundred years to the 17th and 18th century to talk about the other thing I’m looking forward to in Lyon – les bouchons.

The Bouchon is a restaurant serving Lyonnaise cuisine – which is heavily meat-based and does, shall we say, use the whole of the animal.

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. I’m beginning to see another strand of a potential story and I haven’t even visited yet!

Then there’s the tradition of machon (the a has a little upside down triangle over it). This is pretty much charcuterie and all bits porky served with pots of Beaujolais in the early morning.  The silk weavers – or canuts – of La Croix-Rousse would all get together to share these meals at dawn after they finished work. My kind of breakfast.

Tired and down-trodden silk workers, hungry bellies, pork and litres of red wine before the sun is properly up – I’m seeing the perfect environment for the hatching of dastardly plans.

Maybe there’s a way of making this trip tax deductible after all…


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