Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Time well spent

The dish was beautiful to behold and to eat.  

In France, where the smallest restaurant — or even brasserie or bistro, in the remotest village — plates and serves food with fussy attention to stylistic detail, with intimidatingly small helpings, numerous courses, and minimalistic flourishes of dots and dashes, a bouchon Lyonnais, in the capital of gastronomy, is surprising in its simplicity. Bouchons are famed for their conviviality and the robust directness of their food. They came up in the 17th century in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood of Lyon where silk workers, canuts, worked and ate. The traboules, the cobbled passages that residents and weavers used to move quickly between looms and traders, crisscross between a grid of lanes filled with restaurants and cafés. And bouchons. I thought that the word bouchon refers to the cork or stopper of a pot of wine — naturally one from the Rhône-Alps, maybe a Beaujolais — but was corrected: it comes from bousche, which in Lyon’s dialect means a wad of straw or hay, that was hung from bouchon doors to advertise that horses could be groomed and stabled within. Probably it means both, because flagons were stopped with bunches of straw. The fare is usually heavier than nouvelle cuisine, and meat-centric. There is fat, cream, slow cooking… comfort food.

We walked out of the hot sunlight into Au Petit Bouchon ‘Chez Georges’, small and dark, its walls crowded with old posters and the room with half a dozen tables covered in red-checked tablecloths, and the low buzz of conversation, some chuckles and the occasional guffaw. Two men, bespectacled and be-aproned, managed the cooking and serving, both came up for a chat, and agreed to cook me a quenelle. Traditional bouchon food can be calves’ heads, intestines, tongue and quenelles and, because I’m too squeamish for tripe and sweetbreads, I knew that if I was in Lyon I had to eat that dumpling. While we were talking one of the men nipped around to fetch us a plate of sliced Lyonnais sausage to nibble on while we waited. Dark, firm and spiced, this kind has a bite and a flavour that makes me want to gnaw at an entire sausage.

We ordered entrées from a small choice: one salad with smoked duck, crisp mixed lettuce and fat chunks of juicy red tomatoes sprinkled with caraway seeds and an unobtrusive dressing. The deliciously crunchy leaves, salty, aromatic fatty duck slices and sweetly tart tomatoes were the right beginning to a meal. I had a hot starter, a thick slice of pork liver paté en croûte, in a sauce of fresh tomatoes with a few green olives and sliced orange carrots, sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley. Then we had to wait a little for the plat because the quenelle was being made from scratch.

A quenelle is a dumpling made from creamed chicken or fish combined with flour and breadcrumbs and served warm in a creamy sauce. Mine was of fish, a golden oblong that felt light as air and tasted delicately of fish. The smooth, thick sauce, probably made with lobster-shell stock, had the flavour of a bisque, and one claw peeping out. The quenelle itself was light and to my untutored Indian palate, a tantalisingly unfamiliar texture. When I cut a bit off the inside was revealed, smooth, white and almost buttery, like solid custard, and it absorbed the orange-coloured lobster-flavoured sauce as if that was natural, inevitable. Although both the paté and the quenelle came with a reddish sauce, the flavours could not have been more distinct. The other plat was fish. I don’t remember the name, just the taste. It had been lightly fried and then baked in a white sauce with sliced white onions and fennel stalks, with two neatly peeled and whittled potatoes nestling to one side. The fish was firm and flaky, the onions al dente: undercooked but mild, and the fennel added a burst of flavour while the red and green of the chopped tomatoes and parsley gave a bright contrast. The dish was beautiful to behold and to eat.

A typical bouchon dessert is praline tart and Chez Georges had a huge one waiting, thin, crisp and buttery with an implausibly bright pink filling. I asked what the colour came from, and “Georges” (he bought the name with the restaurant) said it was from the coloured sugar on the almonds. In one meal we not only had the opportunity to sample traditional cuisine, we came away with a memory of time well spent.

vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com


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