Ask any seasoned foodie where you can find France’s finest cuisine, and they’ll most probably point to Lyon. Long considered France’s culinary capital, the region has some serious credentials to its name, counting the man who introduced the world to nouvelle cuisine, legendary chef Paul Bocuse, among its long and illustrious list of top-flight food maestros.
Tracing a path through Lyon, Arles and Avignon, the Rhône is gifted with much of this region’s superb food and wine, making a traversal of its waters a dream come true for any gastronome worth their salt. Marked by a refined simplicity, the food here is rustic, robust and hearty, with a premium placed on locally-sourced ingredients of the highest quality. Meanwhile, the Rhône valley is the centre of many sensational wines, the perfect accompaniment to the regional food on offer. Here, we’ll present the highlights of the region’s fare, much of which you can indulge in on a river cruise through the Rhône.
Lyon – the culinary capital of France
Populated with bouchon (family-owned bistros), Lyon features more than a thousand eateries, making it one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita in France. The sheer amount of regional cuisine here is astounding, with food that ranges from the rich and indulgent to the adventurous. Brave diners can sample andouillette, a coarsely cut tripe sausage with a ‘distinctive’ aroma that very much splits opinions. On the safer side of things, everyone can enjoy quenelle, a mixture of creamed fish or meat that’s delicious, filling and a prime example of Lyonnaise cuisine.
Elsewhere, tablier de sapeur, literally ‘sapper’s apron’ is another favourite. Made from beef tripe that’s poached, marinated in white wine, breaded and fried, it’s served with sauce gribiche, a hollandaise-style accompaniment that also features pickled cucumbers, parsley, and capers. Cured sausage, like the Rosette de Lyon, is also common; irresistible morsels often served as antipasto-style snacks, while the ubiquitous coq au vin is perhaps the ultimate version of the iconic dish in Lyon.
If you’re looking for cheese, the city is renowned for its pasteurised perfection. Saint-Marcellin, perhaps its most famous example, is a soft, smooth and creamy cheese that should be sampled at Les Halles de Lyon, the famed indoor food market. It’s satisfyingly runny and great with some crusty bread. Elsewhere, go for silk worker’s brain, a cheese which – despite its name – is a cottage cheese-like dip seasoned with herbs, shallots, olive oil and vinegar. Local diners get stuck in with breads and crudités while they’re eating this traditional classic.
Arles – Rustic dining with a twist
In Arles, bread and soup are two rustic staples made to perfection with the utmost attention to flavour. Fougasse for example, is almost a primitive form of pizza, a salty flatbread that’s often stuffed with olives, cheese, bacon and anchovies. Elsewhere, pain de beaucaire is a sourdough speciality that’s crusty on the outside and lovely and soft on the inside. As for its soup, Arles’ offerings might sound no frills, but they’re packed with flavour. Take its fish soup for example; all manner of sub-aquatic specimens, including scorpion fish, monkfish, conger and red mullet, infuse delicious flavours into every spoonful.
Broufade, a hearty beef stew, was historically eaten by mariners on their boats. Accordingly, anchovies and capers add a salty, fishy note to this already piquant dish. If soup isn’t your thing but you’re looking for something meaty, then head to La Pergula. Here you can try the local favourite, bull steak, a delicacy across the region. Strong in taste and very lean, it’s mostly served very rare in order to stay tender. Paired with one of their impressive wines, this is a dish to savour while you’re here.
Avignon – The French Connection
Stretching further afield to the rest of France and into Spain for its culinary influence, Avignon’s Med inspiration means there’s some truly special food waiting for tourists to tuck into. And while Avignon’s menu might feature a dish or two that’s not to everyone’s taste, the fare’s homely, provincial style is enough to get even the least-adventurous eater’s stomach rumbling.
As with Lyonnaise cuisine, things are simple and provincial here. Take the dish pieds et paquets for instance. Though the name might not sound so appealing (it literally means ‘feet and packages’), and it’s made from tripe and trotters, but fret not; there’s much to enjoy from this local favourite. Along with cured pork, it’s cooked up with parsley and garlic for a few hours, creating a sticky sauce that’s rich and very, very tasty. Looking to try it? Head to Hiély-Lucullus, an elegant, old-fashioned restaurant that specialises in the dish.
Another popular bistro dish is foie de veau en persillade, or veal liver with parsley sauce. The mild liver acts as a canvas for the strong garlic and parsley sauce, creating a delicious contrast that’s impossible to resist. Saunter into Le Caf Thiers and order without looking at the menu – just like the locals do.
The humble asparagus is another Avignon calling card, adorning many a menu in this part of the country. Whether it’s in a soup, roasted, grilled or served as a sauce, asparagus season is a reason to celebrate here. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t serve asparagus in Avignon, so you can’t really go wrong wherever you choose to eat.
Tartare reigns supreme here too. Whether it’s meat or fish, lunch or dinner, the raw meal has remained ever popular. The light salmon version from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon comes highly recommended, the perfect accompaniment to a lazy, sun-kissed afternoon.
Wine from Rhône – the grape escape
Blessed with some of the finest vineyards in the world, the Rhône Valley produces mostly red wine, and the varied selection means there’s plenty of choice for fans of rouge. Subtle red fruit aromas grace the palette, with Syrah grapes being preferred in the south, while the north plays host to both Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, two grape varieties that are beloved in the region.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the village that gives the famous wine its name, is home to Domaine du Vieux Lazaret, the largest wine estate in the area. Still family-run, swing by here for a taste of the Rhône’s finest wines. There are plenty of tours to go for here, it all depends on your love of wine and how much time you have. For something with less walking, head to Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné, a wine bar and restaurant that offers patrons wine tastings and delicious gourmet food, all with a relaxed bistro atmosphere.
An unbelievable array of culinary creations await foodies along the Rhone. Why not treat yourself to something from Cruise1st’s selection of river cruises here, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 274 6777.