Le paradis des foodies est en Rhône-Alpes

I don’t believe I know a single woman who wouldn’t appreciate a trip involving culture, fine food, wine and other gourmet discoveries. After my adventure in the Rhône-Alpes, I’m sure I can convince a few of you to take a similar vacation that you will be sure to keep in your foodie memory forever. Forget the calorie-counting, leave the gym behind and get ready for a gastronomical journey through one of the finest gourmet regions of France.

Where to eat

2 Stars and History

In the Gallo-Roman city of Vienne, some 30 km from Lyon, you’ll find the famous Roman pyramid – a monument which once was the centrepiece of Vienne’s Roman Circus. Just as monumental and quite close by, you’ll find the Michelin-starred restaurant La Pyramide. Founded near the end of the 19th century, it still serves as a pilgrimage site for gourmet faithfuls. The Relais & Châteaux restaurant is where renowned chef Patrick Henriroux creates fine-food masterpieces in a very modern dining environment.

When to go: lunchtime on a Monday, Thursday or Friday for the special “Menu du Marché” – a set menu at 62 Euros that changes regularly to incorporate local, in-season produce. And go while the Vienne Jazz Festival is on (June 28 – July 13, 2013), in the beautiful and historical amphitheatre.

3 Stars and Girl Power

In Valence (about an hour from Lyon), you’ll find famed chef Anne-Sophie Pic – the only female chef in France to have attained the prestige of three Michelin stars (the highest accolade). At Maison Pic , you can choose to dine in the elegant Restaurant Pic (be prepared to pay between 90 and 220 Euros) or do as I did and head to the more casual yet chic bistro Le 7. My three-course meal (30 Euros) at the bistro was simple perfection.

When you go: A short walk from Maison Pic, you’ll find Scook , Anne-Sophie’s modern cooking school and culinary shop. I would gladly take any one of her classes – from quick recipes to a two-day workshop (all at reasonable prices). Family and kids’ classes are also offered.

A star to watch out for

My most memorable meal by far was at Le Clair de la Plume  in Grignan (about two hours from Lyon). Prepared by the modest and extremely talented chef Simon George, who made his cooking debut at the Savoy in London. Only in his twenties and recently employed by the hotel-restaurant, he prepared an unforgettable truffle-themed meal that had us all singing his praises. I felt lucky to have enjoyed one of his meals, because as he becomes more sought-after, I will likely no longer be able to afford them.

When to go: ASAP (before some starred restaurant whisks Simon away). Open all year round for lunch and dinner. You can order from the menu (39 Euros for an appetizer, main dish and choice of cheese or dessert), but I highly recommend the themed menu (79 Euros for 6 incredible courses – themes are based on seasonal ingredients, such as truffles, lavender, olives or chocolate – concocted in a very creative manner).

For simple and hearty fare

In Lyon, it’s not the fine dining that I would recommend, but the authentic and meat-centric “Bouchons Lyonnais.” A Bouchon is a traditionally working-class type of restaurant that serves up Lyonnais cuisine such as tripe soup, blood sausage, duck foie gras, stuffed hare, lamb shank confit and giant fluffy fish dumplings called “quenelles.”

Tip: Look for the official sticker identifying the true Bouchons (awarded annually), featuring a marionette representing the pleasures of dining with a glass of wine in one hand and the crest of Lyon in the other. I dined at Daniel et Denise, a bustling and convivial Bouchon run by the friendly chef Joseph Viola and his wife, Françoise.

Where and what to drink

It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t make a point of trying (and buying) some of the finest wines from the Rhône-Alpes region. A few appellations we enjoyed: Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas, Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Most of these we were able to discover during an unpretentious wine tasting at Les Sens’Ciel  in Tournon-sur-Rhône, (about an hour from Lyon). Marie-Josée, the owner and wine expert, will guide you through any one of her themed tastings, while her partner Katia cooks up lovely and simple food to keep you from falling too far into your cups.

Just across the Rhône River (about a 10-15 minute walk) in Tain-l’Hermitage at M. Chapoutier you’ll find a more elaborate wine-tasting workshop  and boutique.

Note: Both Les Sens’Ciel and M. Chapoutier offer guided wine excursions in local vineyards.

Where to stay

The most charming place we stayed was Le Clair de la Plume in Grignan. It was so perfect that I didn’t want to leave! Not only was it here that I had my most memorable meal, but I just fell in love with the house itself: the quaint décor and design and our friendly host. Built in the 17th century for the Count of Grignan, the house has seen some interesting proprietors, including one of Picasso’s mistresses and a Canadian ambassador. In 1999 the house was lovingly restored and turned into a hotel. The restaurant was added in 2010, and in 2012 they built a beautiful glassed-in patio for dining. Rooms are 99-260 Euros per night, breakfast is 16 Euros.

Tips: Book the “Pavillon des Amoureux” (lovers’ cottage) in the Mediterranean garden for a romantic getaway. In the summer, take a dip in the outdoor chemical-free pool.

For modern luxury, stay at Maison Pic, where the sleek rooms and suites range from 290-890 Euros per night. During my tour of the Maison, I had a peek at a few of the rooms and suites that were designed by Bruno Borrione (who has collaborated on many hotels with Philipe Starck), and they were all very impressive.

Where to shop

The boutique at Scook, for Anne-Sophie Pic’s collection of spices and cool kitchen gadgets. Or just down the street at Pic’s éPICerie for gourmet treats.

Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

It’s much like our Marché Atwater, only bigger and better. A true gourmet has to make this a must-do on any visit to Lyon. Sample some of the world’s finest cheeses, macarons and pastries, saucissons, oysters, wine and more.

Tip: Plan on spending at least two hours at Les Halles, and if you buy cheese, ask to have it packaged “sous vide” (vacuum-packed) so that you can legally travel home with it in your suitcase.

What not to miss

For chocoholics like me, a visit to the Valrhona chocolate factory, school, boutique and “cité du chocolat” (Chocolate City – opening this year – a kind of science centre in a contemporary interactive and educational chocolate way) is a definite must.

How about a truffle hunt? My favourite activity by far was visiting La Rabassière, a truffle farm in Grignan. The truffle-passionate Serge Aurel and his truffle-snuffling sidekick, Emy the dog, showed us how they dig up the “black diamonds” of the Rhône-Alpes. After they found a few truffles, we went back to the little house in the woods for a truffle and wine tasting.

Tip: Wear sensible shoes and pick up a jar of Serge’s truffle oil.

If you like the French sweet nougat, then a trip to Montélimar is in order. The Arnaud Soubeyran nougat factory houses an old-fashioned museum where you can learn about the history of nougat, see how it is made and then enjoy it. Their nougat, marshmallows, calissons (made with almond and candied fruit) and pralines (candied nuts) make great gifts to take home.

The Trolley des lumières is a great way to see the city of Lyon while enjoying a typical meal like coq au vin or lamb shank confit (49 Euros for an appetizer, main, cheese plate and dessert). The intimate and nostalgic trolley bus will make you feel like you’re visiting Lyon during the Jazz Age as it meanders through the city to the sounds of glasses clinking and songs from that era. We were fortunate to be dining during the Fête des lumières in December and were able to catch some spectacular light projections on many of the city’s prominent buildings.

There you have my go-to gourmet list of things to do, so now go and eat your heart out in the Rhône-Alpes!

Carrie was the guest of Atout France  and Air France. To see all the photos from her trip, click here.

Tip: Air France has affordable flights from Montreal to Lyon (a return ticket in April costs about $845) and those who choose to travel business or premium economy class, should definitely check out the new Air France lounge in Paris-Charles de Gaulle. Click here to check out the new lounge.