Machon: The boozy French breakfast to beat the curfew blues

With a tight evening curfew imposed on much of France restaurants in Lyon are trying to revive the traditional "machon," a boozy breakfast featuring the classic hearty dishes that put the central city on the global culinary map.

Machon: The boozy French breakfast to beat the curfew blues
Customers eat a traditional morning meal named "machon" on October 23rd, 2020 inside a "bouchon" typical restaurant in Lyon, southeastern France. Photo: AFP

It's just after 10 am at Yann Lalle's tiny restaurant in Lyon, but his temple of French dining isn't serving coffee and croissants – patrons are being treated to poached sausage and glasses of red wine.

“We're adapting to the hours imposed on us,” Lalle said, referring to the nighttime curfew that took effect in several cities this month to combat an alarming surge in Covid-19 cases.

Deprived of a dinner crowd, he and other Lyon restaurants are trying to revive the traditional “machon,” a boozy breakfast featuring the classic hearty dishes that put Lyon on the global culinary map.

Andouillette sausage and mashed potato canapes, walnut and endive salad, ham and parsley pate, and creamy herbed cheese are washed down with bottles from the famed vineyards surrounding the city.

The machon, named after the verb “macher” (to chew), dates from the 19th century, when workers in Lyon's silk factories would make the most of their first break of the day.

Some of the city's beloved “bouchons,” bistros where foodies cram into low-ceilinged dining rooms steeped in tradition, have been dishing up machons for decades.

Fancy an 8am sausage? Photo: AFP

But others are now resurrecting it in a bid to bring in business when people can still be out and about.

“It lets you forget the Covid situation, have a good time, raise a glass and eat — it's a little earlier than usual, but it goes down perfectly,” said Benoit Quiblier, a tripe producer enjoying the midmorning feast at Lalle's restaurant, Le Poelon d'Or.

'Keep our spirits up'

The French Covid curfew was “like a cold shower,” said Lalle, adding that he now fears another lockdown is looming as hospitals again warn they are filling up fast.

Like other restaurant owners, he has been hammered by a dearth of wary clients despite investing in plexiglass barriers to place between tables.

Lyon is home to around 30 bouchons, whose name is thought to derive from an Old French word, 'bousche,' a round bunch of pine branches that restaurant owners would hang from their doors to mark them out.

Many have already stripped down their menus to cut down costs.

The absence of foreign tourists, in particular Americans and Chinese, has dealt a further blow.

Who said red wine had to be drunk at night? Photo: AFP

A second lockdown, after the two-month nationwide shutdown last spring, might prove insurmountable.

“The first wave was very hard to recover from, but this second wave could be a catastrophe,” Lalle said.

The brunch-like breakfast, costing €25, is meant to carry people over until dinner. For now it is being served on Fridays and Saturdays, though he might offer it on other days if it proves popular.

But it is unlikely that the morning meal will compensate fully for the lost dinners, when people tend to spend more time and money – “for restaurants, that's the best in terms of profits and margins,” Lalle said.

And he acknowledged that today's machons are more subdued affairs compared with the pre-coronavirus versions, when vineyard owners were invited to promote their wines.

“It was more lively and festive, you would go from one table to another, and share plates,” he recalled.

“With the new health requirements, that's no longer possible.”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!