When in Lyon at lunchtime, do as the natives do and head for Les Halles, the French city’s luxurious central covered market that replaced the traditional produce market when it moved to a cheaper part of town in the 1970s. Here you can choose your takeaway from the glittering aisles banked with impeccable cheeses, beautiful charcuterie, perfect butchery, rich desserts and all manner of delicacies ready-prepared for those too busy (or savvy) to cook for themselves.
The citizens’ wealth (and the raw material for its exquisite fish-dumplings) owes much to the river Rhone. Lyon, the highest point at which the Rhone was navigable by cargo-laden sailing-ships, provided warehousing and trading facilities between the ports of the Mediterranean and the great cities of northern Europe. Prosperity allied to her own natural resources — proximity to the great wine-producing regions as well as the fertile farmland of the river’s floodplain — ensured the merchant-princes of Lyon a reputation for gastronomic excellence unmatched anywhere else in France.
While Paris may offer more choice and other regions excel in other ways, nowhere but Lyon has the refined art of the traiteur, provider of takeaways to those who can afford the labour of others, been so perfectly tailored to the lifestyle of its customers. Although the butchers do wonderful things with tripe and trotters, the delicacy that attracts the longest queues at lunchtime to the glass-fronted counters are the quenelles (the name derives from knodel, the German dumpling): little mouthfuls, two to each dumpling, of pounded fish lightened with eggs and cream.
Of these, the most traditional and sought-after is the quenelle de brochet, a dumpling made with pike, a fish whose delicate flesh is threaded through with sharp hair-like bones, making its preparation both time-consuming and labor-intensive. A voracious freshwater predator that can grow very large indeed, the pike was once freely available to all, rich or poor, who cared to drop a line from the city’s quaysides.
Nowadays, however, pike bred in the heavily-polluted waters of the lower Rhone is considered too toxic for human consumption, obliging the traiteur to import his most popular ingredient from elsewhere, decreasing its appeal by increasing the price. Which suggests that the authentic quenelle de brochet is fast turning into an endangered species. No doubt, this is the reason for the market-traders’ seductive display of alternative fish-dumplings made with more convenient ingredients: salmon, lobster, crab, shrimp and (prettiest and newest) purplish-black ones coloured with squid-ink, each sold with its own little sachet of sauce nantua.
All of which means good things are readily available for reheating at home if you live in Lyon. If not, you’ll need plenty of butter, cream and patience.
Quenelles de Poisson Lyonnaise
If you can’t find the predatory pike (ask a river-fisherman), you can substitute salmon, cod, bass, trout or any other fish firm enough to resist all that beating and pounding. And forget the sauce nantua — a little sauce of melted butter or hot cream will do just fine.
For the panada:
For the fish-mix:
- Make the panada: Warm the milk in a heavy pan, add the butter, increase the heat to melt the butter and bring the liquid to the boil, then turn down the heat and beat in the flour a spoonful at a time. Continue to beat as the paste cooks. When you have a soft smooth mass which leaves the sides clean, take the pan off the heat. Allow to cool a little, then beat in the egg. Season with salt and pepper.
- Make the fish: Pound and then sieve the fish to make a smooth paste (or use the processor), then add the melted butter and beat in the eggs and cream. Fold in the well-whisked whites. Combine the fish-mix with the panada, beating till you have a smooth paste. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours, till the mixture is firm enough to hold its shape.
- Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, allow 1 big belch and turn the heat down to a steady simmer.
- Meanwhile divide the chilled quenelle mixture into a dozen fat little torpedoes, two-bite-size, rolling them out on a very lightly-floured board (once you’re confident, skip the flouring and rolling and shape them with a pair of tablespoons).
- Slip the quenelles into the water a few at a time and poach gently till firm — 8-10 minutes — without letting the water come back to the boil.
- Remove with a draining-spoon and transfer to a cloth-lined colander. Serve dumplings plain or with a sauce of just-melted butter whisked with a splash of wine vinegar, or a panful of hot cream into which you have crushed a salted anchovy.
To reheat leftovers as a gratin, sauce with a creamy bechamel and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 350 F.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Watercolor of Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon. Credit: Elisabeth Luard.