A fine thread links the Lyonnaise silk industry — which emerged in the 16th century — with cooking and the recipe for tablier de sapeur.
Silk traders used to hire talented cooks to work in their homes and delight potential buyers with their dishes, helping along the process of getting contracts signed. It was the marketing strategy of the age. In the second half of the 19th century, many of these women left domestic service and set up their own restaurants — the typical bouchons, which still exist — all over the city.
These entrepreneurial cooks gave rise to the meres (mothers) movement, which reigned over Lyon’s culinary landscape until well into the 20th century. Some of France’s greatest chefs trained with these women: the recently deceased Paul Bocuse provides an easy example.
On the other hand, around 1808 and during one of those intermittent crises suffered by the silk industry, an archetype of puppet theatre came into being: Guignol. He represented a ruined silk worker and, wearing a shoemaker’s apron (tablier in French), he travelled the whole country battling for the poor against the authorities and the bourgeoisie.
One of the many recipes that the meres used to prepare was precisely the Tablier de Guignol, a kind of breaded fillet made with the membrane that covers a cow’s stomach, used in Spain, Italy and Portugal to make tripe.
But it so happened that, in the late 19th century, Marshal Boniface de Castellane wound up as governor of Lyon. Aside from being a military man, he was also passionate about offal and off-cuts. The golden fillets of Tablier de Guignol reminded Castellane of the aprons used by the sappers or trenchers (sapeurs) in the army. It’s not clear whether he gave any order to the effect or if it was simply because he was the bloke in charge of the city; in any case, the recipe became known as Tablier de Sapeur.
Lyon’s relationship with offal and its impact on literature form a long arch, spanning the ages. As far back as 1532, a doctor at the Hôtel Dieu de Lyon hospital, François Rabelais, wrote stories to distract his patients. Those stories took shape in a book, Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which both characters eat and drink to excess. In fact, in the first chapters of the tale, Gargamelle, pregnant with Gargantua, scoffs six large platefuls of beef tripe.
Much more recently, in 1976 and with the detective novel at the height of its popularity across Europe, the writer Claude Bourgendre recovered the name of a recipe — Tablier de Sapeur — to baptise the hotel restaurant on the outskirts of Lyon, which serves as the setting for his novel.