Before Ducasse, before Bocuse, there was La Mère Brazier, whose cooking was the ultimate in rich hedonism.
Deep in the volcanic gullet of France, on the swollen banks of two rivers fat with fish and krill, in a land sweetened by sod and loamy truffle clods, Lyon squats with its bouchons and charcuteries, a gastronome's glutted mirage. This is not Paris, elite capital of elegant cafés, ville of dainty macarons and delicate glaciers—this a town belonging to the butchers and the traders, to the silk workers’ guild and the workaday Quai Saint-Antoine, where fishmongers and oyster stalls rowdily hawk their rough wares. A mercantile burg, a blue-collar town, where communal lunchtime tables at the city’s convivial inns groan under glistening sausages, duck cracklings, fried dough, and every kind of offal under the sun—black pudding with roasted apples, hearty pâtés, pig’s trotters, breaded tripe smothered in sauce gribiche—all washed down with tankards of Beaujolais and shots of plum Armagnac. Rabelais wrote Gargantua here, in this city devoted to the most Pantagruelian of pleasures. Where Paris brings to mind the grand hôteliers, toiling in the finicky tradition of Escoffier and Carême, entertaining for emperors and kings, Lyon evokes the gulous meal and the family chef, culling the vegetable garden for a thick country potage. Here, we find cuisine paysanne, not cuisine de cours. Here, we find temples to all things earthy and porcine. Here, we find La France profonde.
Here we also find l’homme rotund, or at least we used to, back in the days when the city’s 19th-century dining clubs wouldn’t admit any chap weighing less than 175 pounds and bon vivants were charged according to their grosseur (five centimes a kilo). At these same clubs, lucky tradesmen got to gorge themselves on “Venus’s nipples”—giant quenelles molded into the shape of ethereal breasts and areoles. Since that time, Vieux Lyon has been a gourmand’s Jerusalem, a savory Santiago de Compostela, with pilgrims following a route marked not by cockle shells but by the trail of three-star auberges studded along the countryside down the autoroute from Mâcon like plump little lardons.