Gastronomic Delights of the Rhone Valley
By Amy Lively Jensen
“The Rhone Valley is known for its excellent wines. But I’ll let you in on a secret-we’ve got the best food in the whole of France, too,” according to three-Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic. Top chefs from around the world agree with this assessment. Exploring fine restaurants, chefs, Bouchons and chocolate in the Rhone Valley is both interesting and highly enjoyable. Although these represent a small sample of their wonderful gastronomic marvels, you can get ideas to enhance your visit to the Rhone Valley.
A great place to start your epicurean experience is with irresistible chocolate and a chocolate museum. Valrhona Chocolate, lauded by leading pastry chefs and discerning gourmets is celebrating 100 years of excellence. Located in the small village of Tain L’Hermitage in southeastern France, they are dedicated to creating unique, artisan quality chocolate with complex, balanced, and consistent flavors, as described on their website.
In honor of Valrhona’s 100th anniversary, they have created a Komuntu 80% chocolate. It was my honor to sample this chocolate, which is blended from cocoa beans from the four corners of the world. My palate rejoiced at the silkiness of intense dark bittersweet and roasted cocoa nib flavors. In addition to creating ambrosial chocolate, they are generous; Valrhona is giving 100% of the profits from Komuntu to their cocoa-producing partners.
As an innovator in chocolate making, Valrhona created a new type of chocolate in 2006. Blonde chocolate is different than white, milk or dark chocolate. Called Blond Dulcey, I found it to be extremely creamy and buttery, with a toasty caramel flavor and a touch of salt. My final treat was Strawberry Inspiration. It is 38% cocoa and tangy strawberry. I’ve never experienced a zesty combination of flavors like this.
This unique French chocolate is used at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. Chef Manguy from Pessac says, “I have been using Valrhona Chocolate since I started my career 23 years ago. Not only am I using the best ingredients for my pastries, but most importantly, I have chosen a provider that shares my values and cares about others, cocoa growers and the environment.”
My craving for chocolate was satiated at Valrhona’s bountiful gift shop where I sampled so many types of chocolate that I was nearly in a chocolate coma. It is a chocoholic’s dream.
Of course, I loved the chocolate, but was also fascinated by their Cite du Chocolat, a museum which covers nearly every aspect of chocolate. Here you’ll have sensory experiences-tactile, olfactory, taste, audio and visual. They have interactive displays, a virtual journey through a plantation, children’s games, samples throughout, and a chocolate tasting. Chef Patt from Valence visited the museum with his kids. “I learned so much about chocolate. It was amazing. We all loved the experience; they make it super fun and interactive,” he explained.
With all the amazing food in France, there is only one city that earns the title of “The Capital of Gastronomy”: Lyon. Located in southeastern France, Lyon is blessed with an incredibly diverse range of food. With more than 4,000 restaurants, you can find cuisines to suit all taste buds and all budgets. There are typical Lyonnais restaurants called Bouchons, to Michelin-starred restaurants, along with modern bistros and hundred-year-old brasseries. If you have an unlimited bank account, you can eat at the whopping 17 Michelin-starred establishments.
Legendary chefs created culinary traditions, which live on thanks to a new generation of talented and creative chefs. An important element of the history of gastronomy was started here by The Mothers of Lyon. They were local female chefs who set up their own restaurants in the 18th century. Incorporating their regional roots, they helped create the foundation of modern French cuisine. Perhaps the most celebrated of The Mothers of Lyon was Eugenie Brazier. She was an exceptional chef and was the first person and woman to earn three Michelin stars at two different restaurants. This record remained until 2009. At age 26, she purchased La Mere Brazier in Lyon for a handful of francs. This young farmer won over the palates of the finest gourmets at the time. Her legend endures at this iconic restaurant. Her traditions are kept alive with iconic dishes. Michelin reviews praise their haute cuisine including crispy pike bread and a stunning Grand Marnier soufflé.
Another renowned chef based in Lyon was Paul Bocuse. He is famous for introducing and championing a lighter style of French cooking in France and around the world. He followed in the footsteps of seven generations of chefs. He started his cooking career at age eight, making his first serious dish of veal kidneys with pureed potatoes. Bocuse was named “Chef of the Century” and “Pope of Gastronomy” in 1989.
His most well-known dish was the V.G.E., a pastry-topped soup made of truffles and foie gras. When it was unveiled in 1975 at the Elysee Palace, each serving contained the equivalent of what would now be $425 worth of black truffles. Bocuse founded L’Auberge du Pont de Collanges, located five miles north of Lyon. This unforgettable three Michelin-star restaurant is known world-wide for its exquisite dining. Michelin Guide reviewers said the Bocuse legacy continues here with crayfish tail gratin, beef and truffles, Bresse chicken fricassee and the magnificent dessert trolley. The Bocuse team also has developed less expensive bistros, such as Le Nord which offer traditional cuisine.
A unique type of restaurant was born and still survives in Lyon. Called The Lyonnais Bouchon, they offer an antidote to luxury fine dining. In these unpretentious eateries, you may find yourself seated at a long table covered in a red-checkered tablecloth drinking wine by the pitcher. You can expect a warm welcome and a handwritten menu. Bouchons are typically small family-run bistros that serve local specialties with fresh produce every day. Vegetarians will probably abstain from Bouchons, as there is a heavy emphasis on pork and innards. For example, you may find stuffed tripe and veal’s head on the menu. There are only 22 certified Bouchons in Lyon. L’Association’s certification guarantees diners an authentic, high-quality culinary experience.
Café Comptoir Abel is one of the oldest and most revered Bouchons. With antique wooden furniture and vintage bric-a-brac, it dates back to 1726. The food is simple and wholesome with large servings. It is described as “comfort food Lyon style.” Head Chef Alain Vigeron has worked at Abel practically all his life. His specialty is genuine home-made pike Quenelles, which are served tableside. These are a type of elongated dumpling combined with creamed fish. They are bathed in a creamy bechamel sauce thick with mushrooms.
An hour south of Lyon, you’ll find the picturesque town of Valence. Anne-Sophie Pic is a legend here, and around the globe. This dynamic chef has earned the most Michelin stars of any female chef in the world; she holds ten stars across her restaurants. Anne-Sophie is the 4th generation of chefs: “There is a culinary tradition in my family-it’s part of our DNA,” she explained. Her great-grandmother Sophie opened the family’s original restaurant in 1889.
Her three Michelin-star restaurant, Maison Pic is celebrating their 130th anniversary. This gastronomic superstar has a special atmosphere. The main room is centered around a crystal chandelier, designed to cast light on the dishes and floral creations. Anne-Sophie Pic serves a single set menu with ten “ports of call.”
One patron who has visited Maison Pic three times finds it “mind blowing.” She explained, “what made our evening extra-special was a tableside chat with Anne-Sophie Pic, followed by an invitation to view the kitchen and then to eat one of our courses at the ‘chef’s table.’ She spent long periods talking with us, in between supervising the creation of dishes by her assistant chefs.”
Avignon, a city in southeastern France’s Provence region is also an area for fabulous restaurants, cozy bistros and captivating cafes. There are many specialized fish restaurants featuring fresh tuna, sea bass, trout and salmon prepared in enticing and unique ways. Frog legs remain the most famous delicacy here. Some desserts are only available in Avignon. Les Papalines d’Avignon is a mix of chocolate and oregano liqueur. Not everyone is allowed to make the extraordinary dessert. To be able to do that, confectioneries must pass a special certification, and it must be hand made. Every year, local pastry chefs produce over five tons of this gorgeous dessert.
Auberge La Treille is located on an island on the Rhone River, just minutes from the center city of Avignon. This gourmet restaurant is in an old country house from the late 18th century with old-world charm. It is surrounded by vineyards and 200-year-old trees. Chef David Warm works with fresh and local products and likes to offer Provencal cuisine with exotic flavors. He recommends trying the beef tartare with smoked and marinated herring and the strawberry cheesecake.
Nestled in the heart of Avignon is a fine-dining restaurant that is almost a secret place, but is well-known to locals. Cloistre Saint-Louis has an unusual setting: an ancient monastery started in 1589. It is stylish and charming with vaulted ceilings, columns and a delightful courtyard garden. They expertly prepare Mediterranean and Provencal cuisine, which keeps pace with the changing seasons. Recommended dishes include Octopus a’ la Provencal and Lamb confit with honey and yellow peaches.
At all these fine restaurants you can pair the dishes with outstanding Rhone Valley wines to enhance your gastronomic delight.