Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

© M. Perrin / OT Lyon

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Terroir tour

France's Rhône-Alpes is less travelled than Provence but still chock-a-block with artisanal foods, great wine and medieval hilltowns

The poet Lord Byron once said there were two ways to deal with malaise: see a doctor or go to France. Today, the nation that coined the term joie de vivre remains one of the world’s finest cure-alls, invigorating even the most inert visitor with its sumptuous take on everyday existence. The French knack for making the mundane and ordinary seem elegant and enjoyable stems from a long tradition of hands-on connoisseurship, a focus on style and technique that permeates every aspect of life.

This artisan’s appreciation of detail is closely linked to France’s village past and the profound attachment to place formed by life on the land. Each locale or terroir was known for the qualities of its agricultural products, just as each village within a region became recognizable by name for its expertise at transforming products into highly particular wares. As a result, France is both very much a country of regions and a culture where location informs everything.

Artisanal tastes

One of the best places to explore the abiding importance of produits de terroir is in France’s heartland, the southeastern Rhône-Alpes region that lies between Burgundy and Provence next to the mountainous borders of Switzerland and Italy. The region, named for its main river and craggy frontier, is the most populated part of France after Paris and its environs.

Home to three important cities (Lyon, Saint-Étienne and alpine Grenoble), Rhône-Alpes contains many memorable smaller centres as well as monuments to taste as varied as the architectural nirvana of the Palais de l'Isle in Annecy and the wine snob’s Hogwarts, the Université du Vin at the Château de Suze la Rousse, south of Lyon. The region boasts eight national parks and peerless wilderness destinations like the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps, and the jagged Gorges de l’Ardèche, Europe’s deepest canyons.

Moving westward from the Alps, the landscape changes from steep hills to cultivated valleys filled with purple lavender and sunflowers. Turn south towards Provence and the vistas become arid and rockier: here, as everywhere, great vineyards and olive groves flourish, watched over by medieval châteaux and villages. Wherever you venture, the wines are sure to be among the world's finest (Beaujolais and Côtes-du-Rhône), as are the many varieties of cheese (Vacherin and Saint-Marcellin are famous favourites). Even the chickens, a succulent breed called Bresse poultry, are prized as far away as Japan.

In fact, the only drawback to touring Rhône-Alpes is the region’s size (64,000 square kilometres), and wealth of attractions. One way to counter this is to narrow a trip down to a few of Rhône-Alpes’ eight départements, the administrative units that mirror traditional terroirs. A good starting point might be Lyon, from which it’s only a short jaunt south to Ardèche and Drôme, two départements esteemed for their beauty and character.

France's foodie capital

Built where the Rhône and Saône Rivers meet, Lyon was settled in 43 BCE by a conquering Julius Caesar. For centuries, the city was the capital of Roman Gaul; much later, it participated in the birth of royal France.

In the old town of Vieux Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, search out the traboules, ancient narrow passageways that run through buildings to connect one street to another. Wandering these hidden short cuts is an atmospheric experience, provided you find the passages’ unremarkable entrances (look for telltale plaques beside otherwise ordinary street doors; by custom, entrances remain unlocked).

Today, Lyon is the unquestioned gastronomic capital of France. Although deserved, this reputation is fairly recent and derives from modern transport’s capacity to flood the city with delectable products from the surrounding terroirs. By 1890, one of the world’s great markets, the Halles de Lyon (still operating at 102 cours Lafayette), had begun managing this cornucopia.

Around the same time, Lyon’s bouchons (corks), working class eateries, started serving up the repasts that make them such a favourite today. Staples like pistachio sausage, coq au vin, and rosette de Lyon (a cured pork sausage) all originated during this time. To try them, find a café reminiscent of a dingy diner back home — the sign you’re probably sitting in a very famous bouchon. (Hint: quality wine is always a clue.)

During the early 1900s, Lyon’s culinary evolution was next spurred on by the Mères Lyonnaises, a group of former house cooks for the city's rich, who opened restaurants combining fine bourgeois cuisine with the masses’ simpler fare. The results became standards of local gastronomy: artichoke hearts with foie gras, pike casserole with crayfish butter, and Lyon’s signature dish of pullet hen with black truffles.

By the 1920s, one member of the group, La Mère Brazier (12 rue Royale; tel: 011-33-4-7823-1720; lamerebrazier.fr) been awarded three Michelin stars. Still open today, her restaurant has since lost a star, if that matters to mere mortals.

Michelin milestones

Mère Brazier also mentored the greatest cooking star Lyon has ever produced, the contemporary giant Paul Bocuse, whose international influence has added much luster to the local scene. One of the architects of nouvelle cuisine and inventor of the world’s priciest soup (made from a rare truffle), Bocuse’s Auberge du Pont de Collonges (40 Rue de la Plage; tel: 011-33-4-7242-9090; bocuse.fr) outside Lyon is one of only a handful of restaurants currently awarded Michelin’s coveted three-star rating.

Bocuse also runs a chain of more affordable brasseries in Lyon, each specializing in a different regional cuisine. Le Sud (11 Place Antonin-Poncet; tel: 011-33-4-7277-800; nordsudbrasseries.com) focusses on the Mediterranean. A meal for one with a main dish of osso bucco recently came to around €70.

Altogether, Lyon has about 1800 restaurants, 14 of which have Michelin stars. The city is also filled with cooking schools and wine institutes that serve the tourist trade (check www.lyon-france.com for recommendations).

With all the attention paid to food, Lyon’s comfortable accommodations are often overlooked. Large numbers of hotels and auberges (inns) cater to all standards and incomes. Known for its private terraces and hillside views over the city, the five-star Villa Florentine (25 montée Saint-Barthélémy; tel: 011-33-4-7256-5656; villaflorentine.com) has bargain doubles starting at €260.

Lavender fields forever

An hour south, the département of Ardèche begins, an area of medieval villages, oak forests and striking hills of volcanic rock. Take a second look at the nondescript cafés you pass: that worn sign in front of a crumbling building may indicate that it's a Bistrot de Pays, part of an organization where establishments are recognized for their adherence to local traditions, products and recipes.

In the first real village reached, Saint-Remèze, look for the Musée de la Lavande (Route des Gorges; tel: 011-33-4-7504-3726; ardechelavandes.com), a museum and distillery surrounded by fields of purple-blue lavender blooms. Here, old-fashioned presses and stills pulp and cook the flowers to extract the essential oils used by parfumiers and naturopaths. The scent is overpowering, and the enthusiasm of the English-speaking guides infectious: many guests stay far longer than they intend.

After the serenity of the lavender fields, the scenery abruptly changes. This is the beginning of the Ardèche Gorges, monumental canyons and chasms that cut a deep gash through a landscape of rock hills. The natural Pont d’Arc, where the Ardèche River flows through a huge gap under an arching granite “bridge,” has to be seen to be believed. Better still, swim or kayak through the arch; watercraft are available for rent.

The Gorges d’Ardèche features many campgrounds, including the five-star Lodge du Pont-d’Arc (Route de Pont-d’Arc; tel: 011-33-4-7587-2442; prehistoric-lodge.com; doubles from €95) where lavish safari-style tents with canopied beds and high-end fixtures peer over a river beach in the gorge. One of the owners does the cooking (superb), and also makes excellent homemade aperitifs.

Down the road, the gorgeous medieval village of Balazuc hangs on the gorge’s edge; if there ever was a place to retire and take up the local pastime of infusing drinking water with aromatic herbs, this is it.

Apart from the ubiquitous grape (visit ardeche-guide.com for a list of vineyard tours and stays), the treasure of the area’s terroir is the chestnut, transmogrified by local know-how into concoctions like whipped chestnut beer. For a more outré take on the culinary arts, visit Chassiers’ Mas des Faïsses (Chalabrèges Route de Joannas; tel: 011-33-4-758-83451; masdesfaisses.com) where the meals consist of edible flowers: day lilies, for example, taste much like arugula.

Olives and vines

The most southerly of Rhône-Alpe’s départements, Drôme borders Provence and is a few hours from the Mediterranean. In the town of Nyons, the Coopérative Vignolis (Place Olivier de Serres; tel: 011-33-4-7526-9500; vignolis.fr) runs a large showroom-cum-supermarket for its many products. Try types of olives and grades of olive oil, along with olive jam. Touring the plant reveals it takes a lot of machinery to squeeze an olive.

Another of Nyons’ oil mills, the Huilerie Richard (69 avenue Frédéric Mistral; tel: 011-33-4-7526-4753; huilerie-richard.com), does things the old-fashioned way, using an enormous battered mortar-and-pestle contraption to flatten the olives into oil. (They also have a shop in Lyon at 110 Boulevard de la Croix Rousse.)

Just down the road, 40-something Raphaël Delaye-Reynaud recently gave up an international career as a wine seller to return home and begin a new life in the artisanal vinegar-making business. Today, Delaye-Reynaud’s factory, the Vinaigrerie La Para (32 rue Victor Hugo; tel: 011-33-4-7526-1299; lapara.fr) is one of only five of its kind in France. Using traditional, handmade methods Delaye-Reynaud makes unique vinegars infused with innovative aromatics such as honey and coriander. The process, involving storage in wine casks and repeated filtration, is dirty, lengthy and labour-intensive: it takes Raphaël nine months to produce the amount big industrial companies put out in a day.

Nyons’ pleasantest hotel is undoubtedly the quiet and small Une Autre Maison (Place de la République; tel: 011-33-4-7526-4309; uneautremaison.com; doubles fromt €90), an 18th-century house hidden in an overflowing jungle-like garden right in the town centre. The food is excellent (try the trout tartare), as is the ambience.

Jazzed about ruins

Another distinguished small hotel is Le Clair de la Plume (Place du Mail; tel: 011-33-4-7591-8130; clairplume.com; doubles from €98) in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Grignan.

Taking up most of one side of a Grignan lane, the Clair de la Plume’s 10 lavish rooms occupy a property once owned by Lord Southam, the Canadian newspaper magnate. The hotel’s public spaces are actually located on an adjacent street, the address of the garden café, dining room, and salon.

On the other side of the same road, the sprawling hotel’s gardens contain a 200-year-old swimming pool set in granite and an outdoor “picnicking” restaurant. Both look across fields of lavender to the medieval Château de Grignan, resplendent in its perch on the village’s hilltop. A last stop in Drôme has to be the large town of Vienne, a community that dates back to Roman times and now hosts France’s largest jazz festival (tel: 011-33-892-702-007; jazzavienne.com).

An enormous ruined temple built by the first century Emperor Augustus squats in the middle of the main square, surrounded by trendy cafés. The end of June jazz fest, which features many international stars, is always memorable, partly because it takes place outdoors in a large, steep Roman amphitheatre, cut out by slaves 2000 years ago from the sheer rock of the hillside rising above the town.

At this point, you can head back north to visit other parts of Rhône-Alpes, or carry on southwards into neighbouring Provence. Wherever you go, you’ll be able to rely on the fact that the expression joie de vivre needs no translation.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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