Lunch at Chez Hugon, an old-fashioned bouchon
This morning I awoke to the sounds of Lyon going to work. The hustle and bustle of France’s 3rd largest city rose softly up to our apartment window, carried up on a cloud of intoxicating scents of croissants and pain au chocolat from a nearby boulangerie.
I sipped my first cafe au lait while looking out over the Rhone River anticipating the first day’s full adventure.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry once wrote:
“The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.”
I say these words hold doubly true when drinking your first real coffee after a long journey.
Our only task of the day was to eat the first serious meal of our trip — lunch at Chez Hugon, an old-fashioned bouchon. Something I had been looking forward to since I last paid the check at the very same restaurant 4 years prior.
Thankfully Chez Hugon was only a short walk away because we stopped to take pictures of every doorway in between. What should have been a five-minute walk turned into an hour-long leisurely stroll.
What is it about French doors that I love so much? I think it’s partially because the doors at home are generally the same exact size and color. Here in France, they come in various colors, though usually in hues of green, red, or blue with a few ornately decorated wooden doors thrown in for good measure.
Many are gigantic-sized doors towering almost two stories high while some are more modest hobbit-sized portals.
If you have never been to Chez Hugon, it is a tiny bouchon founded in 1937 by mere Lulu. In 1985, Arlette Hugon took over; her family has been running it since.
Arlette’s son Eric now cooks but she is still around greeting guests and lending ambiance to the experience.
If you are unfamiliar with what a Bouchon is, it is a simple restaurant serving hearty meals.
The history of bouchons dates back to the 16th century but it is probably the connection with the famed Mères Lyonnaises, or Lyonnaise mothers that we think of today.
The first recorded mère was Mère Guy, who in 1759 operated an open-air restaurant on the banks of the Rhone River that specialized in Matelote d’Anguilles, a hearty red wine based eel stew.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the mothers started as domestic cooks for prominent families. Many lost their jobs in the period between the world wars with the advent of automobile tourism.
Jobless, they left their profession as home cooks and embarked upon opening small restaurants serving hearty family-style cooking.
All the food at bouchons is usually prepared on sight at the restaurant, with a heavy influence on local ingredients and traditional Lyonnaise fare.
Think of the bread and butter classics of French cooking: coq au vin, blanquette de veau, and terrines mixed in with a few more regional dishes like tablier de sapeur, cervelle de canut, and praline rose.
The food is often served in small Creuset pots tableside with plenty of bread, laughter, and endless pots de Beaujolais (46 cl increments of wine).
The décor is quite simple with red checkered tablecloths, wooden furniture, and usually some kind of service bar. The close proximity fosters a more communal, family-like experience.
A customer at one bouchon needed more bread to finish her starter and we shared our bread basket so she wouldn’t have to wait. The banter between the kitchen and the dining room is infectious.
One woman who couldn’t decide between main courses was joking with the chef that she wanted the other plat as her dessert.
I knew exactly how she felt.
At Hugon, there are maybe 25 seats crammed tighter than sardines in a sardine can. The menu costs 31 euros for 3 courses.
We started with a delicious goose rillette, salade de pieds de veau (veal feet), and lentils with warm sausage.
When I was a small child my grandfather would always give me a rillette sandwich to eat when I was out playing on his property in Perigord. The fatty goose rillette felt like the indoctrination back to old France.
The lentil salad was beautifully balanced with just enough acidity to counter the rich pork sausage with pistachios.
My favorite starter was the salad of veal feet (see the recipe below). An ingredient that hasn’t found its way into the mainstream of American cuisine yet and probably never will. Veal feet for the uninitiated are rather bland on their own and need to get their flavor from the sauce. In this case, it was a piquant vinaigrette, though a Gribiche sauce would be fantastic too.
For our main courses, we had ris de veau (veal sweetbreads) sauteed meuniere, quenelle of brochet (pike) in a crayfish sauce, and the most incredible civet de cochon (pork stew) I have ever had in my life.
Civets are rich stews that are not too unlike a really well-made coq au vin rich in flavor except they are thickened with the animal’s blood.
Civet de lapin was a near-mythic dish in my house growing up. Some folk’s mothers would tell them bedtime stories of little lambs jumping over fences. My mother would describe the incredible richness of a properly made civet so vividly until both of us were drooling.
This civet was absolute perfection in its execution.
The pork was meltingly tender. The red wine sauce was made luxuriously rich with fresh blood whisked in. And the small tiny pieces of salted pork belly just melted in my mouth. The civet was simply served with perfectly cooked tourneed potatoes.
As many folks close to me know and maybe some of you who read my words have surmised — I am an old-school classicist. I rather enjoy the old family dishes of yesterday.
Restaurants like Chez Hugon sing to me. I am thankful that we have change and progress in our kitchens — time can and will never stand still for anyone — least of which me.
At the same time, I am eternally grateful that there are cities like Lyon that hold onto their traditions dearly.