COQ AU VIN
Bangkok, 8 June 2015
Yesterday evening, my wife and I went over to the Central World mall to see a film (“Spy”, a hilarious film, well worth seeing). Afterwards, feeling peckish, we decided to stay and have dinner in the mall – at least it was well refrigerated there, a decided plus in this hot season when the promised rains are failing to come to cool us. The problem is, most of the restaurants in the mall are of Asian extraction – Japanese is a definite favourite, followed by Korean, and then trailing far behind a few Chinese, Thai, and “international” (i.e., mixed Asian) – and that’s not what I felt like eating. I wanted something “different”, although I wasn’t quite sure what that “different” might be. We made a bee line for a French restaurant advertised on the information board, but it had disappeared since they had last updated the board. We sighted an Italian restaurant, although something called “Spaghetti Factory” surely is to be avoided like the plague. We got a fleeting glimpse of a Mexican restaurant tucked away in a corner, but Mexican food didn’t entice me … You get the picture. I was being finicky, and time was passing. Eventually, we saw a bar-cum-restaurant called “1881”, which looked nice enough. We rapidly checked the menu, and since it looked suitably international we went for it.
Ensconced at our table, we scanned the menu more closely. For the main course, we both happily plumped for the coq au vin. It had been an age since we had eaten this, we both exclaimed. To keep us going while we waited, we ordered some starters, and of course a glass of red wine. The starters were delicious, the wine was good, everything looked set for a memorable dinner. Alas! it was not to be. When the coq au vin arrived, we found ourselves faced with a chicken leg, deep fried à la manière KFC, sitting on some sort of thick tomato-based sauce peppered with carrots and onions, maybe something which had been recycled from an osso buco dish, and which had obviously never seen a drop of vin. We glumly ate our poulet à une sauce indéfinie, agreeing with each other that something had definitely got lost in translation. The dessert, a great pannacotta with some sort of balsamic-strawberry gelée, partially made up for the very disappointing main dish, but it was undeniable that the coq au vin had been a black hole in our sensory experiences of the evening.
I feel I owe it to my genes, to my heritage, to right the balance, to advertise from the rooftops the greatness of coq au vin. At least describing how the dish is made might allow me to partially enjoy, if only in my imagination, the taste of the Real Thing.
Let me start by saying that in the olden days coq au vin was not a dish that would have been served to the Great Sun King, Louis XIV
or some other such august personage, unless of course you wanted to be sent to the Mediterranean galleys or to rot away on L’île du Diable. The great French chef of the mid-19th Century, Marie-Antoine Carême, author of the encyclopedic L’Art de la Cuisine Française and other works, never mentioned it, nor did the even greater French chef of the late 19th-early 20th Century, Auguste Escoffier, in his various publications. No, this was above all a peasant’s dish, a way of recycling that rooster in the yard which had reached the end of the rooster road. It was people like these who created coq au vin, making a virtue out of necessity.
So now let us see how this wonderful dish is made. The paysan (or paysanne) will first have laid his (or her) hands on a rooster like this one
and wrung its neck. We modern men and women are squeamish about killing to eat, but what to do: unless you hang around prides of hunting lions and scavenge what they are kind enough to leave behind, to eat meat you need to kill; simple as that. Oh, and by the way, it’s good to slit the rooster’s throat and drain its blood, which you will use later in making the dish. If you can’t bring yourself to do all this, you can subcontract the task to a butcher. You can also subcontract him the task of plucking the bird, which the paysanne would have done herself (I remember my French grandmother doing this, while she sat on the balcony discussing this, that, and the other with my mother). The wonderful feathers of the rooster should be conserved, although I’m not quite sure what to do with them. In any event, in one way or another you should end up with something like this:
Personally, to support the Home Team, that is to say Burgundy, where the French side of me comes from, I would want a rooster from Bresse, which is on the other side of the River Saône from Burgundy: the Burgundians gave the people of Bresse their wine and in return got farm products like chickens.
Now we can start the cooking.
First, you will cut up the rooster. Place the pieces in some container, to which you will add diced carrots, onions, and shallots, and – if you really must – chopped garlic (personally, I would drop the garlic; I’m not a fan of this particular bulb). The paysan would have collected these from his vegetable garden like the one my French grandmother had hidden behind her lilac bushes, but I recognize that in our modern, highly urbanized society most of us do not have access to vegetable gardens, so we will have to make do with the local grocery store, or even the local supermarket. Add laurel, thyme and parsley. Add a little stock. Salt and pepper. And now we come to the wine.
Obviously, this is a key ingredient, so some thought needs to go into its choice. Nothing too fancy, of course – not going to waste a $100 bottle of wine to cook our rooster. Something with a good body but not too tannic should do the trick. I would go for a red wine, although there are parts of France (Alsace, for instance, or the Jura) where the dish is made with white. Since, as I’ve mentioned, I’m batting for the Home Team, I would personally go for a red Burgundy, maybe shading into a Beaujolais, something just down the road from where my Grandmother lived.
Our paysanne would have gone down into the cellar of the kind my Grandmother had and taken a bottle of wine made from grapes growing in one of the surrounding vineyards and bottled in that very cellar or at least locally. But we – with a sigh – will make do with what we find at our local wine store.
In any event, pour in enough wine to just cover the rooster. Cover the container and leave it in a cool place. You will let the rooster and the vegetables marinate for a full 24 hours.
The next day, fresh from a good night’s sleep, you will begin the next phase.
As a first step, fish the rooster pieces out of the marinade, draining them well. Do the same for the vegetables. Do not throw away the marinade! Very important.
Put all these aside, and take a large skillet, in which you will heat a little butter and oil. Frankly, I don’t think the paysanne would have used oil, at least not in Burgundy. Traditionally, Burgundy was not an oil country. I would guess, from a perusal of an old French cookery book from 1651, that she would have used butter and/or lard. Nevertheless, we will go with butter and oil since nowadays oil you find in shops but lard only with difficulty.
Once the butter-cum-oil is hot enough, slide in the rooster pieces, together with some chunks of bacon, and let the whole brown nicely. Throw in the vegetables from the marinade and let them colour a bit. Sprinkle with flour and let it all cook a moment. Move the skillet off any open flame, take a small glass of cognac, sprinkle it over the rooster pieces, and light it up with a match – taking care, of course, that your face is not too close; the last thing you need is to find yourself eating the final product without eyebrows. In Burgundy, the paysanne would probably have used a Marc de Bourgogne, which is a brandy made with the solid leftovers from the grape presses. But unless you actually live in Burgundy, you probably do not have this at hand, so go with cognac. Once the flames have died down, add in the marinade, and bring the whole back to a boil for a few minutes.
You will now let the mix simmer slowly for a long, long time: aim for six hours. Let it fill your kitchen with a gorgeous aroma, but don’t hang around there because otherwise you will soon no longer be able to stand it and you will throw yourself on the cooking rooster and wolf it down. As would have done the paysanne, go and busy yourself in the garden, in the studio, anywhere that is some distance from the kitchen. Keep your mind and hands busy with other things, just popping in from time to time to check. As the hours pass, the meat softens and falls off the bone, it absorbs the wonderful aromas it is basting in, and the sauce itself slowly thickens. Towards the end of this long simmering period, you will take the blood you collected when you killed the rooster (remember that?) and add it to the sauce to thicken it. You will also prepare boiled potatoes a little while before the end, to accompany the coq au vin.
The coq au vin is now ready to eat. Lay out the pieces of coq in a serving plate, pour the sauce au vin over them.
Place the potatoes on the side, bring out that special bottle of Burgundy you’ve been keeping for an exceptional moment, call in the family and your special friends, and enjoy!
Mmm, there’s a rooster I keep hearing over the other side of the lane, in a building site. Maybe tonight, I’ll go out with this cleaver which we bought in China
And find me a rooster for a nice coq au vin …
French peasants-1: http://www.myartprints.co.uk/kunst/french_photographer_19th_century/peasant_family_of_the_sarthe_a_hi.jpg (in http://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/frenchphotographer19thcen/peasantfamilyofthesarthea.html)
French peasants-2: http://img.over-blog-kiwi.com/0/81/05/67/201311/ob_9bbe36_conde-sur-noireau-calvados-comice-agricole.jpg (in http://stephane.guillard.over-blog.com/2013/11/l-histoire-des-comices-agricoles-en-france-xixe-xxe-si%C3%A8cles.html)