You know and love the classic French bistro? Good. You've passed the necessary apprenticeship before tackling your first bouchon.
Bouchons are traditional lace-curtained, wood-lined little bistros particular to Lyon, a city often called the "stomach" of France. They began as local inns that sprang up to serve simple home-cooked meals to the Lyon's silk workers (les canuts), in the 18th century. By the period between the world wars, the bouchons were run by "les meres", formidable women who had worked as cooks for the wealthy bourgeois families of the region. Their menus were aggressively local, their cooking was long and slow, their tables check-clothed, their dining rooms humble, and their bills relatively small.
What is extraordinary is that the bouchons of today are all that and more, because the bouchon is all about tradition. To dine properly, you must surrender to the god of pork fat, giving yourself over to it with full heart and empty belly.
A little bowl of grattons (pork cracklings) will arrive gratis, requiring a quick aperitif – perhaps the kir-like communard, for which creme de cassis liqueur is added to red wine.
Most likely, your host will simply ask if you want meat or fish, and red or white wine. The correct answers are meat and red. You're here for slabs of pork terrine, boudin noir, pig's trotters, ox tongue and intestine-filled andouillettes, with a modest Cotes de Rhone brought in a glass "pot".
The menu is set in stone. There will be oeufs en meurette, or poached eggs stained purple with red wine. The famous salade lyonnaise, of bitter frisee leaves dripping with lardons of pork and fried croutons. Tete de veau (pressed calves' head) with a caper-mad sauce ravigote. If you are lucky, there may be tablier de sapeur, a "fireman's apron" of crumbed tripe. For sure, there will be floating islands of cloud-soft meringue in pools of custard, and cervelle de canut (the name a poetic reference to the silk weavers' brains), of soft, creamy fromage blanc, fragrant with garlic and herbs.
But where to dine? The much-awarded Daniel et Denise, buzzy Cafe Comptoir Abel or the wonderfully named Tete de Lard? For me, it's the tiny, cosy Chez Hugon, where the tete de veau was something that I could have married and lived with happily ever after. My chair wobbled, the table sloped, and I was forced to stand whenever "la mere" had to make coffee on the shelf behind me. I can only hope you will be as lucky.