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A taste of Lyons, the 'capital of gastronomy'

At the Bocuse d'or competition, eponymous chef Paul Bocuse and star chefs, like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller judge the contestants.

Cinda Chavich for The Globe and Mail/cinda chavich The Globe and Mail

Paris has its museums and monuments, but Lyons has long held the title of "capital of gastronomy." Everywhere you turn, there is something wonderful to eat.

A smoky pork sausage, shot with pistachios and served with a mound of mashed potatoes in a pool of cream sauce. A skewered brochette of foie gras or a pretty macaron in Les Halles Paul Bocuse. A simple plate of lentils with a fat fish quenelle, served with a pot (the local term for a flask) of local Rhône wine in a rustic bouchon… Lyons is all about rich, rustic, French food.

I was there for the 2009 Bocuse d'Or, the world's most prestigious cooking contest, a biennial pressure cooker that pits the top chefs in the world against each other in a live, timed event before a sea of screaming fans. It's an incredible sight - Mr. Bocuse himself, the Lyons chef known as the father of nouvelle French cuisine, flanked by American star chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud as the judging begins.

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But even as the world's best cooks gathered to compete, I found even more incredible cuisine along Lyons' narrow streets.

This is a town with a food tradition built on home cooking. The "mothers" of Lyons - the cooks who a century ago opened the first bouchons (casual restaurants) - set the bar. Mère Brazier, one of the first chefs to win three Michelin stars, also trained the young Mr. Bocuse, and so I'm keen to discover the best examples of this famed bistro cuisine.

There's no better way to get your bearings in Lyons than from the Basilica, high on Fourviere Hill, and we ride the funicular up, before wandering back through the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Below, beyond the Roman amphitheatre dating to 43 BC and the tall, red-roofed houses of the historic silk weavers area, the Saône and Rhône rivers braid their way through the city centre. Lyons was built on silk - a handful of weavers continue to create exquisite silk fabrics on the clanking wooden looms.

And you can still find secret traboules (covered alleyways once used to transport the precious cloth) joining the cobbled lanes of the old town.

We find the kind of food that the fuelled silk workers (canuts) at Café des Fédérations, a cozy little eatery in the heart of the city. Rhône wine and conversation flows in these close quarters, and we dig into hearty portions of black lentils with calves feet, herring and potatoes in olive oil, big pike quenelles floating in creamy crayfish Nantua sauce, and Cervelle de canut (which translates as "silk workers' brain"), a combination of fresh fromage blanc, chopped chives and herbs to be spread on toast. Pink and gooey praline tart makes a fitting finale to a hearty traditional lunch.

Lyons is a walkable city, which is a necessity with all of the rich Lyonnaise cuisine served in every bouchon, brasserie and the city's many Michelin-starred restaurants.

Creative young chef Nicholas Le Bec continues to expand with Espace Le Bec at the airport and the new Rue Le Bec, a huge market emporium/brasserie concept in a converted warehouse at the tip of Presqu'île, where the Rhône and Saône rivers converge. Lunch is a classic Lyonnaise salad, topped with crispy pork lardons and poached egg. We stop for wine and charcuterie in the trendy wine bar Georges Five on Rue du Boeuf, then toast the Canadian Bocuse competitors at the Brasserie Georges with tall glasses of house-brewed beer and plates of marrow bones, pistachio-studded sausages and rich Alsatian choucroute.

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A trip to the famous Les Halles de Lyons Paul Bocuse - the formal name of Lyon's finest food market - uncovers the master chef's favourite purveyors, and I'm amazed by the sheer wealth of regional ingredients. There are shops selling nothing but pretty French macarons, the ethereal sweet meringue cookie flavoured with everything from green tea to foie gras, bakeries piled with fresh, crusty loaves, and counters stacked with fragrant wheels of local cheeses. Giraudet sells nothing but quenelles, some with butter and chestnuts, others blackened with squid ink or simply made the traditional way, with pike.

We can't resist a stop at an oyster bar for a glass of wine and a plate of freshly shucked mollusks, and a taste of traditional Spanish jamon. And we marvel at whole black truffles, at the famous Bresse chicken (with its white plumage, bright red comb and blue feet reminiscent of the French flag), and a shop selling all manner of foie gras, skewered on sticks, pressed into terrines and formed into a massive gâteau.

Mr. Bocuse is undeniably Lyons' most celebrated chef - with his likeness depicted in wall murals, his chain of bistros dotting the city and the eponymous culinary competition. A meal at his famed L'Auberge du Pont de Collognes is a culinary pilgrimage and we make the trip to Mont d'Or to sample the classic menu he has been cooking here for decades. The Bresse chicken is dramatically steamed in a pig's bladder and carved tableside, and Mr. Bocuse's truffle soup is served exactly as it was for the French president in 1975, in a footed soup bowl and topped with a dome of puff pastry. Mr. Bocuse retains three Michelin stars but this is a museum experience - Lyons' best food is simple.

At his comfortable cooking school next to his suburban home, chef Jean-Marc Villard teaches amateurs like me to make a classic Lyonnaise potato gratin, slivered potatoes simmering with garlic and cream.

"This is something you could eat in a bouchon, a dish that's simple and traditional, but delicious," says Mr. Villard, a former Michelin star chef who also teaches professionals at the Paul Bocuse Institute.

"Here in Lyons," he adds, "we always eat well."

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