IMG_4118Springtime in Lyon is not so different from that in Auckland. Days of rain have been randomly punctuated with brilliantly bright, sunny days, usually occurring partway through the week when they are of no use to anybody.

I don’t usually mind rain, but it is not particularly conducive to sightseeing, especially the kind of sightseeing I am most fond of, which consists of me wandering aimlessly around a city for hours. I’ve had to be reasonably inventive here in Lyon – for example, instead of going to La Cathédrale de la Saint-Jean, I’ve visited Muji instead.

While the markets along the banks of the Saône are unparalleled, there is one market which can be found under a roof – Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Old mate Bocuse is one of Lyon’s most famous sons (along with the Lumière brothers, who invented cinema). He has three Michelin stars, and I am not ashamed to say that I had never heard of him until I heard about Les Halles.

The market is in a bleak building in the bleak 7th arrondissement, near a giant, bleak shopping centre that has a Primark in it that people queue to get into. I went on a rainy Saturday morning, and it was nothing short of bustling. Les Halles has a wide range of food vendors selling mostly meat (raw or cured), cheese, seafood or incredible-looking pastries. It also has several tiny, squished-in bistros that look like they were designed for train carriages.

I wandered around for a bit looking at the various offerings and peering anxiously into restaurants trying to decipher the menus, before turning toward my day’s main task – to come away with a wheel of Saint-Marcellin cheese, Lyon’s fromage célèbre.

Saint-Marcellin is in the brie family of cheeses, although it is not as strongly flavoured as its more famous forebear. It is made from unpasteurised cows’ milk and is mould-ripened, although the rind tends to be very thin and powdery.

Like many other cheeses in France, Saint-Marcellin has an AOP classification, which means that only cheese made in a particular geographical location (in this case from the area around the town of Saint-Marcellin a little way southwest of Lyon) and made according to a strict set of rules can be given the name Saint-Marcellin.

This is the same system that famously protects the name Champagne, and is widely used around the European Union. Parmesan has the Italian version of an AOP (NZ-made “parmesan” would be illegal in the EU), and even the humble Cornish pasty is protected under EU law (for now, anyway). The French love their protected designations of origin – this morning I was reading about the AOPs of various breeds of French chickens.

Saint-Marcellin is everywhere in Lyon, and every vendor selling cheese at Les Halles had a tiny pyramid of powdery, wrinkled wheels. After a truly terrifying encounter with a French person in which I was forced to reveal the fact that I didn’t speak French very well, I fulfilled my goal, and came away with a cheese to eat with baguette (and a cheeky tarte aux praline for dessert).

The cheese was not as runny as the internet had led me to believe it would be, although it was plump and soft and gooey, for sure. It was, however, rustic af, with a earthy, tangy vibe that reminded me quite a lot of fino sherry, of all things. I paired it with a glass of light, herby Vin de Savoie from the Apremont cru, mostly because that’s what was open in the fridge. It was a fortuitous pairing, however – the two were very complementary, the wine’s crisp fruitiness cutting through the rich cheese.

Overall, I liked the Saint-Marcellin. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I have ever eaten in my life – but I think it is not the kind of cheese that is given to extravagance. It’s the Côte du Rhône of cheeses – nothing fancy, the kind of thing you crack open on a Thursday night cos you’re hungry and the goddang curry you’re making is taking an age to cook.

Type of cheese: Saint-Marcellin
Eaten with: Vin de Savoie Apremont
Score: 6 out of 10 laughing cows



The Bleakest Beginnings

I arrived in France on a Sunday, the 30th of April, white and sweaty and hungover as all hell.

After a night that involved every beer in east London, a whole bottle of organic Grüner Veltliner, and a rousing rendition of “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence on Singstar, I’d met Sarah for brunch in Exmouth Market. Sarah’s food looked great, but brunch for me consisted of a single piece of unbuttered toast and a poached egg, of which I ate about half, and even that was a struggle.

On the way to get on my train, I’d hurriedly bought a sandwich from the newsagent in St Pancras, quite a stressful proposition given that I was wielding two enormous bags and my train was in the process of boarding. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered – I choked down the sandwich because I thought I should, not because I had felt anything that even remotely resembled hunger.

After four hours of trains and at least half of the most morally questionable episode of S-Town (the one where they inexplicably go into a large amount of detail about McLemore’s sex life), I arrived at my hotel at around 7:30pm. As a result of my day’s sad nibbling and the hangover, I was ready to eat a live octopus out of Boris Johnson’s armpit. But as I heaved my suitcase into the corner of my exceptionally bleak hotel room, I realised: this is Europe. And it’s a Sunday evening.

Nothing was open. I had to walk for about 20 minutes before I found a landscape that wasn’t just desolate pavement, apartment buildings and parked cars, and then there were metal shutters as far as the eye could see.

After I walked back and forth past a kebab shop about four times twisting with anxiety (what if they speak to me in French etc etc), I decided that surely there was some kind of superette or tiny supermarket or dairy open somewhere. I would find it and acquire food with a minimum of human contact, if it was the last thing I would do.

Victory came in the form of a small stand of vegetables that I’d spotted from a good 100m down the road, which turned out to be a small superette. The shopkeeper threw me off guard initially by greeting me with a cheery “bonsoir!” – I’d been mentally practicing my very best “bonjour” for those 100m and although I knew what he meant, I panicked and stammered “hey” back at him.

I came away with a packet of cornichon- and moutarde-flavoured chips (the shop had no bread), a packet of sliced ham, and a wheel of camembert in that kind of thin, balsa wood packaging that seems to be de rigueur for this kind of cheese. The chips were delicious, and the ham tasted like supermarket ham, which wasn’t an unwelcome flavour.

The camembert was solid to the touch, and was entirely too cold. Having spent the last four years eating “camembert” that was made in New Zealand, I wasn’t going to let the cheese’s temperature put me off. I’d been dreaming of this day since I’d left Europe the first time, and I was going to eat the bloody cheese regardless of whether it was too cold, or I was on fire or something.

The cheese’s rind was thick and flaky, and cutting off a wedge revealed a kind of solidified centre that looked a bit like chèvre, which, while not offputting in any way, didn’t really look right. It didn’t smell particularly strongly in any way (although subsequent openings of the fridge in my small hotel room revealed that the cheese did in fact have a rather forthright aroma). I put the wedge in my mouth.

To my hungover, hungry and camembert-starved brain, this was quite possibly the most delicious cheese I had ever eaten. It was creamy and soft, but pungent at the same time, and it made my tongue itchy – always the sign of a good cheese. It wasn’t an expensive cheese – it was about 2€, and by French standards this was probably a fairly lowly cheese. I think it probably would have cost me about $20 to buy something similar in New Zealand.

It took me a few days to get through the cheese, and the majority of the wheel was eaten with me standing above the open fridge cutting off a surreptitious wedge or two at a time.

I’m sure there will be other camemberts and other hangovers, but this was my first in France and I will treasure the precious memory of this cheese.

Type of Cheese: Camembert
Eaten with: Schweppes Virgin Mojito, chips
Score: 9 out of 10 laughing cows