The secrets behind a perfect Coq au Vin
The year is 50 B.C., Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.
Tell me you got the Asterix joke.
I grew up reading and cracking up with Asterix and Obelix. By the way, if you have never read one of the comics, I certainly recommend you pick up a copy, I guarantee you will enjoy it!
When I was a kid, my father used to get me the original version (i.e. French) Asterix comics to encourage me to read and practice French on my own. Luckily for my 10-year-old self, and sadly for my dad, written French just resembled Spanish way too much. I could totally understand with the help of my faithful Spanish-french dictionary and managed to never actually learn how to speak his mother tongue, that is until now that I find myself immersed in French culture and language day in a day out.
But I digress. So back to Gaul.
Now according to legend it was during the Gallic wars, when Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul circa the year 56 B.C., that he received a bony old rooster. The old cock was a gift from his most formidable adversary, Vercingetorix, leader of the Averni tribe; who by the way managed to unify over 15 of the rivaling Gaulish tribes. The bird was said to be a symbol of the tenacity of the Gauls and the hardship the Roman legions would face in what Vercingetorix expected would be a long, arduous and fruitless conquest. Little did he know that Romans were not ones to give up easily, and power hungry Caesar even less.
In response, the very practical Caesar had the bird slow cooked in a flavorful Roman wine alongside Mediterranean spices and had Vercingetorix and a few of his closest advisors over for dinner at his campsite. When asked what the wonderful concoction they had dined on was, he did not hesitate to answer that is was none other than the old cock he had received as a gift earlier on. Julius Caesar also wanted to convey a message, one that spoke of Roman cultural superiority and how anyone could benefit and prosper under Roman rule.
Now it is well known that both men respected and held the other as worthy opponents, but it is also well known that Vercingetorix would rather have had his countrymen starve by burning fields of crops than seeing Roman soldiers stock up on Gaulish grub.
Which brings us to Henri the IV. "Good ol' king Henri" was the first of the Bourbon dynasty to rule over France. A protestant turned Catholic for very practical reasons; the Throne. Or as he actually put it, “Paris vaut une messe” (Paris is worth a mass), and just like that put an end to protestant zealotism that had characterized the Bourbons for the past decades. Because of his very lax approach on religion, was that Henri IV managed to put an end to the religious wars that had been savagely decimating his subjects which in turn earned him the epithet of "Good King Henri".
His other very famous quote relates to Coq au Vin.
"I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday”. By the way, this quote actually inspired Herbert Clark Hoover's presidential campaign slogan during the Great Depression in the USA "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage". Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And so the royal promise of prosperity is said to have sparked the idea behind Coq au Vin. But like the name suggests COQ AU VIN, originally called for an old cock (or hen) to be braised in wine, not so dissimilar to the one legend suggests was cooked by Caesar.
However, it is actually more probable that coq au vin; like most other traditional recipes, was developed out of need. Braising over a long period of time in slightly peaked wine is sure to tenderize even the toughest of meats, like that of the old hen who’s done laying or the old rooster that can no longer perform his duties in the chicken coop. It's a great way of cooking that meant nothing went to waste on farm or table.
Older recipes are said to have called for the whole bird, crest, feet, etc, to be simmered in the flavorsome “brine” for over a day. The remaining brine was then thickened into a sauce with the birds own blood. A sort of black pudding soup if you will; something I can imagine makes more than one palate want to shy away from it.
The thing is though, that those older recipes are long lost to us now. And actually, the oldest coq-au-vin-ish (yes, I’m making up words now) recipe found is in an ENGLISH cookbook called “Cookery for English Households, by a French lady” first published in 1864. And the French lady? Well, we will never know her identity, as she (or he, or even maybe they, who knows) wrote the book anonymously.
The recipe I am referring to is “Poulet Au Vin Blanc”. A magnificent recipe which I hope to make pretty soon. But the list of ingredients of this sophisticated little dish is somewhat more expensive than that of humble Coq au Vin. Ingredients like black truffles made it unaffordable to peasant households on any given Sunday. And so still we have no conclusive origin of Coq au Vin.
Julia Child and Coq au Vin
After weeks of research I found that it was always staring me in the face. ( I write facing my cookbooks, and it so happens that Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking is one of my go to reference books). Though not the original creator of Coq au Vin, it was actually Julia Child who immortalized Coq au Vin forever, catapulting it into new heights, making it not only known to the home cook abroad, but accessible as well.
More often than not, it is her version that even the most traditional French households tend to turn to when making this famous dish. Who would of known how much of their cuisine the French really owe to this American “foodie” who actually took the time to codify, crosscheck and reference SO MANY classical French recipes.
And since “People who like to eat are always the best people” (quoting Mrs. Child) I imagine about now you are done reading this spiel and just want the recipe.
*My recipe is not Mrs. Child’s, but rather a family hand-me-down that I happen to know has been made and enjoyed for many a generation.
Coq au vin
note: Coq au vin is traditionally served with steamed or mashed potatoes, but feel free to eat with the side dish of your choice
- 1 1.6kg (3.5 lbs) preferably organic chicken portioned
- 500 mL (2 cups) of good quality wine like a Burgundy, Beaujolais or Rioja
- 250 g (1/2 lb) bacon lardons
- 100 g (4 tbsp) butter
- 10 pearl onions peeled
- 250 g (1/2 lb) mushrooms
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 large sprigs of thyme
- 1 large glug of extra virgin olive oil
- 30 g (1/4 cup) of all purpose flour
- 750 ml (3 cups) chicken broth (you can sub for water + stock cubes)
- 1 shot brandy (optional)
- 3 tbsp of tomato paste
- 1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cover chicken with wine, and spices. Let marinate for a couple of hours
- Pour boiling water over lardons to blanch them slightly. Pat them dry and fry them with half of your butter in the same stock pot you will be using to cook the chicken. Once slightly crisp add onions and mushrooms. Cook until tender and remove from pot.
- Remove chicken from brine and pat dry, cover with flour to create a crust. Don’t skip this step as this same flour will be the thickening agent in your beautiful sauce. Fry in the pot with olive oil just until skin becomes golden brown. Take your chicken out of the pot. And fry the remaining flour with whats left of the butter to make a roux.
- Pour brandy into flour and cook for a minute so that the alcohol evaporates.
- Place your chicken in your pot and pour over the marinade and stock. Add the mushrooms, onions and lardons.
- Cook for 40 minutes over medium heat or until chicken is tender.
- If sauce still needs a bit of thickening, remove chicken from pot and allow to cook until desired thickness.
- Sprinkle with lots of chopped parsley.