Coq au vin… The name conjures romantic images of checked tablecloths and candles flickering in wine bottles, arrogant waiters, and accordion music playing softly just around cobblestoned corners. The French have a way of turning rustic ingredients into glorious food that makes everyday life deliciously glamorous.
Coq au vin is no exception, especially when eaten for lunch at a long table outside in the Normandy countryside as I had the luck to do a few years ago, crickets chirping and the warm air redolent with sage and lavender.
A lovely alchemy created by simmering chicken in red wine with bacon, onions and mushrooms, coq au vin guest stars in “Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes” by Mark Crick, who presents recipes in the voices of famous novelists. The recipes, which include Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler; Tarragon Eggs à la Jane Austen; Tiramisu à la Marcel Proust; Cheese on Toast à la Harold Pinter; and Onion Tart à la Geoffrey Chaucer, present today’s dish as a Columbian, rather than French, favourite.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the person of Father Antonio del Sacrament de Altar Castaneda, prepares coq au vin for a condemned prisoner, Fidel Agosto Santiago: “Santiago would eat his last supper the following night, and since the condemned man refused to accept food from his wife, the priest had taken on the responsibility.”
The ancient Romans may have been partial to this homely yet courtly dish, thanks to their traditional rivalry with Asterix and co. Legend has it that Julius Caesar’s cook created the first coq au vin recipe after the Gauls gave Caesar a tough old rooster as tribute for his conquering them; Caesar’s cook made the bird into a meal to serve back to the Gauls. Perhaps revenge is a dish best served hot after all…
But it’s more likely that coq au vin simply evolved as a local recipe in France. In 1864, a similar recipe – poulet au vin blanc – appeared in Cookery for English Households, by A French Lady. In one of the earliest printed recipes, published in 1913, the text claimed the recipe dated to the 16th century.
Delicious, glamorous, rustic, simple, historic, evocative, classic – a literary star; a historical gesture – on top of all of these attributes, the best thing about coq au vin may be that it’s easy to make, and the leftovers just get better in the fridge.
1 x 5 lb (2.25 kg) chicken, cut into 8 joints (I used chicken breasts)
1¼ pints (725 ml) red wine
1 oz (25 g) butter
1 rounded tablespoon softened butter and 1 level tablespoon plain flour, combined to make a paste
1 tablespoon oil
8 oz (225 g) unsmoked streaky bacon, preferably in one piece
16 button onions
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
8 oz (225 g) small dark-gilled mushrooms
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
Melt the butter with the oil in a frying pan, and fry the chicken joints, skin side down, until they are nicely golden; then turn them and colour the other side. You may have to do this in three or four batches – don’t overcrowd the pan. Remove the joints from the pan with a draining spoon, and place them in the cooking pot. This should be large enough for the joints to be arranged in one layer yet deep enough so that they can be completely covered with liquid later.
Now de-rind and cut the bacon into fairly small cubes, brown them also in the frying pan and add them to the chicken, then finally brown the onions a little and add them too. Next place the crushed cloves of garlic and the sprigs of thyme among the chicken pieces, season with freshly milled pepper and just a little salt, and pop in a couple of bay leaves. Pour in the wine, put a lid on the pot and simmer gently for 45-60 minutes or until the chicken is tender. During the last 15 minutes of the cooking, add the mushrooms and stir them into the liquid.
Remove the chicken, bacon, onions and mushrooms and place them on a warmed serving dish and keep warm. (Discard the bay leaves and thyme at this stage.) Now bring the liquid to a fast boil and reduce it by about one third. Next, add the butter and flour paste to the liquid. Bring it to the boil, whisking all the time until the sauce has thickened, then serve the chicken with the sauce poured over.