From Lyon with Love

23 June 2023

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On Wednesday 14 June, this intrepid Operations Manager left the familiar Colmore Business District to embark on a trip to Lyon.  This famous French city shares a deep connection with Birmingham, but I’ll be honest, it’s not a city I know much about.  Assuming you’re like me, let me paint you a brief picture.

Lyon is the third largest city in France.  It sits where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet, just north west of the Alps and about a two hour train journey from Paris.  The city itself has a population of just over half a million people, however, together with 57 other municipalities, it is the capital of the Métropole de Lyon, which is home to almost 2.3 million people. 

The city itself is famous for many things.  It was the capital of the Gauls during the Roman Empire.  It had an infamous silk industry, which has now been replaced with banking, professional services, biotech and video game development.  It also lays claim to being the birthplace of cinema, with the Lumière Brothers pioneering this new art form back in 1895. 

However, the reason it is probably best known, and the reason I was drawn to visit is Food!  Gastronomy!  And if you’ve met me, you’ll know that food and drink occupy a lot of my thinking time!  It is home to two of France’s key wine making regions – Beaujolais and Cote du Rhône.  The city has long claimed to be the world capital of food, boasting an array of 3 Michelin star chefs (that’s three stars each!).  Lyonnaise cuisine has, for a long time, been the favoured food of the French elite, and its local style, Bouchon, is still renowned both locally and nationally. 

Also unknown to me, Lyon is twinned with Birmingham, in one of the earliest city twinnings.  Birmingham’s food scene is going through something of its own renaissance.  No 3 star chefs yet, but we have five Michelin stars in our city; the most outside of London.  Our mixologists and sommeliers are winning national and international acclaim.  Our street food scene is absolutely banging, we have distillers, brewers and suburban neighbourhoods bursting with independent talent.  So when Lyon reached out to Colmore BID to meet and talk about how we could improve our city’s ties, we couldn’t say no.

I was out of the door first thing for a meeting at the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie de Lyon (CIGL).  I was late to my meeting with Pam as the building is an absolute maze, but I felt better about getting a little lost as she told me the history of the location.  This rabbit warren on the banks of the Rhône was Lyon’s oldest and longest serving hospital, ran by nuns for over 1000 years.  Untold numbers of Lyonnais were born, nursed and died in the building.  However, it eventually fell out of use.  After a huge effort from the city, which involved a multi-million Euro investment from the private and public sector, the building has been sensitively redeveloped and brought back into use, with the Intercontinental Hotel serving as the jewel in the crown.  If you are in Lyon, I highly recommend a visit, especially if you need a spot of lunch out of the heat.

The CIGL is based within the complex.  It opened just before the pandemic.  The business model focused on high end food, however this didn’t work out.  It struggled to regain momentum post COVID and, in the end, the Métropole de Lyon stepped in.  A team of three now work on the project, including Matthieu, who gave Pam and I a personal guided tour. 

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The CIGL is a museum on Gastronomy.  It hosts a range of visiting exhibitions, as well as a series of permanent pieces that represent the food culture of Lyon.  In the main hall sits The Piano; the grill plate and workplace of Paul Bocuse, the culinary heavyweight of the city.  He died in 2018 but his legacy, and the pride the city feels for this famous son is palpable. 

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As well as being a monument to the past, the CIGL also looks forward, hosting expos and celebrations of other food cultures.  Visit in the right week and you could find a whole series of events celebrating the food of Japan or Barcelona.  Every Thursday, they also run demo kitchen events, with chefs from across the city coming in to talk to members of the public about their food, their ingredients, their passion and, of course, cooking up a storm at the same time.

After looking around and having a really fruitful discussion about how our two cities could work together, I had some spare time.  I asked Pam if there was anywhere in the city I had to go.  “Are you interested in food?” She asked.  I tried to play it cool, but I don’t think it worked.  She was kind enough to point me in the direction of Les Halles de Paul Bocuse.

A short walk later (I might have been walking at top speed!), I found myself outside.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  I was told that this is where top chefs go to source produce.  The butchers, the fromagiers were described as artists.  So, presented with a building that looked a bit like an M&S food in a train station, my heart dropped a little.  Did Lyon just have good food banter?

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I’m pleased to report I was wrong.  Yes, the building is modern, but the produce was phenomenal.  As I walked up and down the rows of stalls, I saw meat, fish, fruit and vegetable, all fresh and clearly high quality.  There was a range of pre-cooked meals that you could have bought.  They looked fantastic.  Got a sweet tooth?  The chocolate and patisserie looked stunning.  And, nestled between all of this was a network of small bars and restaurants.  If I was to return to Lyon, I’d get an apartment, not a hotel room and eat some of the best ready meals I’ve ever seen!  Outside was a street art tribute to Paul himself.  I’m sure he’d be proud of this oasis of gastronomy. 

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The second key reason I found myself in Lyon was to meet with the organisers of their Street Food Festival.  My contact there wasn’t free on Thursday (a meeting on the first night of a food festival?  We’ve run enough of those to know that’s a bad idea!), but she said to come down anyway.  I met up with Nicola Fleet Milne.  We went in, had a look around for an hour or two, grabbed bao for dinner and then took a gentle walk back to the hotel.  The festival seemed nice enough.  Some cool touches.  Again, I think it’s fair to say we underestimated quite how seriously Lyon takes food…

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Day two, fully caffeinated, I was on a mission to look at Lyon’s public realm.  Our signature event, Colmore Food Festival is all about food, but one of our other key work streams is about improving the public realm in the District.  How did Lyon measure up? 

I took a stroll around two parts of the city.  I started in the equivalent of the retail core and the tracked back towards Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, which is located in the city’s central business and administration district. 

The city of Lyon and the Métropole de Lyon have both recently undergone elections and the Green Party have won control of both.  This gives a real focus to the work done by the city and region’s administration.  In terms of food, for example, there is now a real focus on health, nutrition, food stability and accessibility, and this is reflected in the work that CIGL does.  However, it is also reflected in the infrastructure.  Measures are being taken to actively reduce cars in what is a centre that is still car dominated. 

The public transport, however, is really good.  The busses and Metro systems run frequently.  I was able to get a 48 hour pass for €12, and this worked on both modes, making it easy to get around.  There was also plenty of cycle lanes to encourage more sustainable movement and loads of hire bikes.  Electric scooters were present, but not in great numbers.  According to Roland, who took me back to the airport, the public transport in Lyon is exceptional at all times, and is better than in Paris.  

In terms of public realm, I think Lyon is as you would expect.  The retail core is full of European style public squares and main roads, connected by a network of smaller, more exciting streets.  One of the things that stood out to me was how many parklets there were.  So many parking spaces had been given up for outdoor seating to support hospitality.  It was fantastic to see, and I hope Birmingham can start to unlock more spaces for this purpose.  There were back streets that just came to life with activity due to spill out space, but also main roads that were animated by seating.   The central business district, however, is much more austere.  I’d prefer Colmore Business District over Lyon’s equivalent; Lyon was a lot of concrete.

That said, both the business district and much of the suburbs had a good division of road space.  There was lots of green corridors for bikes and pedestrians, and green tramlines too.  This helps to reduce the impact of vehicle pollution along these arterial routes and provides a nice environment for those not in the car. 

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I’d got my steps in.  Time for Lyon Street Food Festival round two! The festival is run by Nomad Kitchen, a company founded by two chefs.  One lived in Thailand, the other in California.  When they returned home to Lyon, they were surprised to see that Street Food, a culinary staple of their temporary homes, wasn’t part of Lyon’s dining experience.   The Festival is the culmination of years of working to build an interest in street food in the city.

Berenger met Nicola and I to give us a tour, which should have been pretty quick, given we’d done a self-guided tour the day before.  Again, we were wrong.  The festival is huge. The area we visited (about the size of Victoria Square) was just one section.  In the central hall was more food, the main bars and the Wine District.  The festival also had an entire section dedicated to sweet food, a cocktail garden and a beer hall.   120 chefs show off their skills every year from Thursday to Sunday.  Each chef creates a unique dish.  Like the Colmore Food Festival, the size of dishes is limited so that you can eat your way around the festival, and the cost is capped, with dishes costing between €4-6.  Entrance costs €10, which also gets you access to over 40 free workshops.  All you have to do is book at the registration desk an hour before your workshop starts. 

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The range of food was incredible.  There were 2 Michelin star chefs creating alongside chefs from Tucson Arizona (guests for this year) and some of the best up and coming chefs from Lyon.  Berenger gave us three recommendations.  The first was a 2* chef creation – oyster on a bed of potato, leek, cabbage and a local sausage.  The salty shelled oyster cut perfectly across the creamy potato base.  Second was another 2* chef.  This Japanese chef fused flavours of Japan with the buchon style.  His light salad of rabbit basted in hot oil and topped with pickled mooli was perfect on a hot summer’s day.  We finished with my dish of the day.  An eclair made with peanut infused pastry, filled with chocolate cream and topped with a block of handmade chocolate.  My inner 8 year old was delighted. 

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As I walked back to my hotel on this balmy summer’s evening, I reflected on everything I had learned.  The opportunity to share knowledge and challenges with others had been really invaluable.  I’d been inspired by some of what I’d seen.  Other things had acted as a comfort – we’re doing well.  Most importantly, my mind was buzzing with ideas of how we, as a District and a city, could work with our twin to do some exciting stuff.  I don’t mean any disservice to Birmingham when I say I think Lyon is a step or two ahead of us.  Food has been their focal point for centuries.  But I think what we’re doing stands up well to this titan of gastronomy and, more importantly, there is a desire to work together to help us develop further, and for this youngster to teach the old dog a few tricks.    

I hope some of the ideas I thought about can become a reality.  This is what BIDs do.  We  collaborate, we work to create things in addition to what is already there, and we help to bring disparate groups together to deliver success for our businesses.  Lyon is, geographically, pretty disparate, but in attitude, I think we’re pretty close.  I have faith we can build on this closeness.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend eating your way around Lyon some time.  I spent a lot of time looking at things I wanted to eat – I didn’t even scratch the surface.  And if you can be in town mid June, make sure the Lyon Street Food Festival is on your to do list.  And who knows, maybe we’ll have something similar closer to home in the near future.