There’s a certain thrill to visiting the tastiest food market in what many people believe is the food capital of France.
The anticipation is almost too sharp, the fear of disappointment too palpable.
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.
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.
Many of Lyon's best French food outlets 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.
It isn't food for everyone. Like eating insects in Thailand, some French foods are an acquired taste but once acquired, it's yours for life.
I spend time listening, ogling, inhaling… This is the world of the creamy, wrinkly Saint-Marcellin cheese prepared by the Mère Richard (or by her descendants, as sadly she has 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, 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 on that first visit: 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.
(No matter: a subsequent visit will rectify this oversight.)
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.
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 that had fallen 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. The older edition was much more to my liking.
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 app if you want to know what it is you’re eating. Otherwise just point. I can’t think you’ll be disappointed by anything.
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: