There’s a certain thrill about uncovering a new market, new to me at least, a place others rave about so much I’m sure to be disappointed.
A shiver of anticipation rushes down my spine when I feel I’m about to discover something truly exquisite, without knowing exactly what lies ahead.
Ever since I can remember I’ve loved great food and eating at Les Halles Paul Bocuse – the market’s official name – was a gift I had long planned to give myself so when the tourist office organized a half-day visit for me, I was rushing to the train station before they’d even hung up the phone.
As I look around the indoor market’s 58 stalls I tell myself there are many paths to excellence: the actual product, the so-called raw material, its freshness and crispiness and tenderness; the preparation, the recipe, the cuisson – whether it’s perfectly done or overcooked; and the environment, the physical beauty, the arrangement in the plate, the palette of colors and even the wafting scents fighting one another for a nostril.
All the best food houses of Lyon – and when you say best in Lyon you often mean best in France – have an outpost within these walls, their inventions and traditions laid out in splashes of color or perfect geometry, waiting for a hungry soul to shake things up a bit. It is misty and rainy and cold outside, but my world has turned sunny and warm and exciting.
I spend time listening, squeezing, tasting… This is the world of the creamy, wrinkly Saint-Marcellin cheese prepared by the Mère Richard (or by her descendants, as sadly she recently passed away). It is the saucisson and other cold cuts from the inimitable house of Scibilia, and the rainbows of fruits confits – candied fruit – from Bahadourian, the Armenian caterer and grocer whose downtown warehouses have the feel of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It is the andouillette tripe sausage and white ham with truffles from Bobosse, the famed charcuterie established in the Beaujolais region for more than half a century.
Or these escargots (upper left), so large my snail tongs bareful fit around them, their secret being (I suspect – no one has confirmed this) the variety of parsleys and the unsalted butter. The tart taste of herbs pushes through, entwined with the addictive scent of garlic.
Just below, also on the left, these riotous tidbits are designed to look like bite-sized patisseries but they are, in fact, seafood cakes and concoctions.
And below that, on the lower left, sea urchins so creamy I inhale their tiny coral strips rather than eat them.
I suffer a single disappointment: I have my eye on frogs legs but by the time my escargots are gone, so are the frogs legs. It’s not even noon, and every small frog is already eaten or spoken for.
I have an undeniable fondness for indoor markets – the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, the Boquería in Barcelona, Florence’s Central Market… This indoor cuisine and market stall hybrid appeals to my laziness (it’s all under a single roof), my delight at variety (you can hop from one stall to the next and sample), and the sheer excellence of its products.
Les Halles in History
What started in Lyon as a traditional marketplace moved to its present location in the suburb of La Part-Dieu in 1970. The move improved supply as it was far easier for produce trucks to deliver goods than along the twisted streets of ancient Lyon. The Part-Dieu area, a former military outpost now falling into disuse, got much-needed business and traffic.
The market was renovated in 2006 and – what a coup – Paul Bocuse, the world-renowed Lyonnais chef allowed his name to be used, hence Les Halles Paul Bocuse.
The market’s products were already renowned but the new name was almost a challenge, forcing merchants to reach even greater excellence. They now had to live up to both Bocuse’s and Lyon’s gastronomic reputations, the pressure compounded by Unesco’s decision to protect French gastronomy by adding it to the Intangible World Heritage List.
Les Halles is not what I would consider a handsome building, with its mundane glass frontage and warehouse ceilings.
But combine the allure of the stalls with the energy of those who frequent them and the cavernous space transforms itself from vastly impersonal to cozy and welcoming.
This isn’t a market for vegetarians, or for fresh produce lovers. This is a market for lovers of traditional Lyonnais fare, hefty, meaty, rich and anything but delicate. Nor is this a place for squeezers and tasters; while some shops will allow you to sample before you buy, most will assume you know what you’re buying. Unlike more tourist-intensive markets, this is not a pick-and-choose. You either buy something from a stall and take it home, or you sit at one that serves, and eat.
The huge tour groups haven’t discovered Les Halles yet, but that can’t be far off. Already the city of Lyon is pioneering some culinary city walks and while these don’t include Les Halles, in future they probably will.
This is an adventure you can handle on your own. Just come early, bring your hunger along, and possibly a phrasebook or a translation device if you want to know what it is you’re eating. Otherwise just point. I can’t think you’ll be disappointed by anything.
Things that caught my eye
It’s impossible to sample everything and see it all in just a few hours, especially if you’re like me and need to read every label and ogle every cheese. A few things did definitely catch my eye:
- Those fabulous escargots I had for breakfast (yes, garlic at almost sunrise) at Rousseau, where they also prepare giant polystyrene seafood trays to go.
- The cheese plates at Mons, which they help you build: they might suggest a cheese wheel, with the mildest first, followed by stronger and stronger cheeses to preserve your palate.
- At various sweets stores you’ll see small turquoise candies – coussins, or pillows – which are a mixture of chocolate, almond paste and Curaçao. They were designed to commemorate the Fête des Echevins, celebrated on 8 September since 1643 in honor of Mary, to whom the Lyonnais entrusted their city, threatened by the plague.
- The Armenian shop Bahadourian, which not only sells every Middle Eastern delight imaginable but also carries such foreign delicacies as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…
- Alsatiens, a stall run by Alsatians from northeastern France; many fled here after the annexation of their corner of France after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
- The chocolate shop Sève, with macarons – made with foie gras!
- Trollier the butcher, whose meat is so tender he cuts his hamburger by hand.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Lyon has an airport with flights from across Europe; you can also land in Geneva – there’s a two-hour train to Lyon every few hours. From the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon you can hop on Tram 1 and get off at Mairie du 3 stop.
- Visit Les Halles with a strategy. Don’t wait for lunch or the best spaces will be filled. Before 11am or after 2pm could be your only hope. Don’t have breakfast before you come – just make a beeline for your most essential stall. Save any shopping until after you’ve eaten.
- Many stalls have additional seating upstairs. If the small crowded bar area is full, ask if there is more seating upstairs. Some restaurants are also open in the evening so if you don’t snag a seat at lunch you might still have a chance.
- There is plenty to buy. If you’re from the USA then you won’t be able to bring most of this food home but most other nationalities can shop and stuff their suitcases. I’d suggest any kind of saucisson, possibly hard cheese if you’re not traveling too far, candied fruit, macarons (but I dare you to have any left by the time you leave Les Halles), chocolates or coussins, those small pillow-shaped almond paste and chocolate sweets.
- I benefited from the wisdom of Benedicte Roy, a bilingual tour guide who knows her way around every stall and is a fountain of information about Lyon’s history – I wish I could tell all here. If you would like to hire a private guide you can reach her here via email.