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Coq au vin - slow food or quick and easy?

"The entire recipe for coq au vin in one popular cookbook, now in its third printing, read: 'Cut up two broilers. Brown them in butter with bacon, sliced onions, and sliced mushrooms. Cover with red wine and bake for two hours.' Hmm." Julia Child

The quote is from My Life in France by Julia, and it is my starting point for today. I'm guessing the book she refers to might be The Joy of Cooking, but then again maybe it's something much less well-known. The photograph at left is from an unnamed, probably classy, restaurant in Dijon which is supposedly the home of coq au vin. Well as one writer says, the one thing people agree on is that the wine should be a Burgundy. Even Nigel Slater rather pompously said it certainly shouldn't be made with an Australian wine. Well this is what he said:

"There is a branch of cookery that says you can mess around with a classic recipe and it won't matter. You know, make a patently French recipe with Australian wine or swap a herb or a vegetable to suit what you have available. Where I am the first to say we should cook to suit ourselves, our intuitions and appetites, I also believe that a classic recipe should be just that, a classic. To mess around with it would be to misunderstand it, to somehow downgrade it."

Mind you somebody else said why would you waste a bottle of Burgundy on gravy? Why indeed. Well that's what I think, but then I don't have a sophisticated palate and probably wouldn't notice the difference. I'm sure a bottle of Australian pinot noir is perfectly acceptable. Well any kind of Australian red really.

There is also another rather lovely origin story:

"A dish allegedly prepared by Caesar when battling the Gauls, who sent him a scrawny chicken as a message of defiance. Caesar cooked it in wine and herbs and invited them to eat. Thus demonstrating the overwhelming sophistication of the Romans." The Food of France

Which would make it an Italian dish! Well origins are always murky aren't they? This was probably just one of those peasant dishes where said peasant was trying to make a stringy rooster palatable by cooking it in the local wine.

These days I think it's virtually impossible to make a real coq au vin, because cocks are never available to cook and neither are boiling hens. These days our chicken is tender and definitely not stringy. Particularly if it's top of the range organic free range, corn fed or whatever else. Or if you are in France - poulet de Bresse. So no cooking for hours, and maybe a whole bottle is a bit too much?

So what would Julia have us do? Well if you have the time, do watch this video from the Jamie and Julia series, in which a young American (maybe Canadian) guy cooks his way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's around 8 minutes long, but is mildly amusing as he demonstrates all the gaffes, that we ordinary people make - including using Chianti instead of Burgundy. The finished result is pretty good though.

The actual recipe can be found on A Taste of Home together with a rundown of problems encountered along the way - the finished dish looking like this. Which is a rather darker purple than the one in the video.

On the other hand you can go to the other doyenne of French food - Elizabeth David, who begins her recipes (there is more than one) with these words:

"Recipes for this famous dish vary a good deal and one meets with many bad imitations in which a boiling fowl is cooked to rags and then warmed up in some ready-made sauce vaguely flavoured with wine. There's also an idea that the sauce must be thickened with the food of the animal to make a genuine coq au vin. This is not necessarily the case." Elizabeth David

Ugh and anyway, just as well. Where are on earth are you going to get chicken blood, unless you have your own chickens and you kill them yourself. Which, of course, people still did around the time she was writing - well maybe a little before. I know my mother's family kept chickens and rabbits in their backyard. And some people still do. Well those who are fortunate enough to have large blocks of land - there are now rules about size of land and keeping animals. Then there's the fox problem too. And you probably aren't allowed to kill and eat either. But I digress.

She first gives a recipe from La Cloche d'Or in Dijon which, having now perused several recipes for coq au vin, is a pretty generic classic version it seems to me both in the ingredients and the method. (The picture is from an unnamed Dijon restaurant)

"Cut a cockerel into joints; in an earthenware saucepan melt a few pieces of streaky bacon, previously blanched; add some small onions and the pieces of chicken; when these have taken colour, pour off the fat. Set light to a glass of brandy, pour it over the chicken, then add a bottle of old red Burgundy and a little stock; season with salt and pepper; add 2 cloves of garlic, a bouquet of parsley and bay leaf. When it starts bubbling, close the pot hermetically and simmer gently. When cooked, remove the garlic and the bouquet, add a few mushrooms, and bind the sauce with beurre manié; cover, and let it bubble once more." La Cloche d'Or, Dijon/Elizabeth David

And I actually think that that is indeed the way to do it. However, Elizabeth David goes on to say that:

"This all sounds very easy but, in practice, it is difficult to get the sauce to the right consistency without spoiling the bird by overcooking."

And she then suggests cooking the sauce separately before adding the chicken for a final burst. Which surely would mean that the chicken was not so infused with the flavour of the sauce.

Some marinade the chicken overnight, some say you absolutely should not do that - it will make the bird dry, when the onions and mushrooms are added varies but almost everyone seems to start with cooking the bacon. Robert Carrier repeats his recipe in several of his books but it's always virtually the same - even in his later New Great Dishes of the World, which to me implies that there's not really much to mess with. Personally I think the main difference, as I have already implied is that the birds we cook these days are not at all the same kind of bird as was originally intended. Therefore you need perhaps to adjust the cooking time or you will overcook - and better to stick to either a whole bird cut into pieces, or to thighs and drumsticks which are juicier than the breasts. Bones anyway.

Of the modern cooks, Felicity Cloake does her usual thing and basically plumps for Elizabeth David. Her final version is shown here. Nigel Slater recalls cooking it in his early days of cooking in a restaurant, under a master chef whose restaurant, at the time, was supposedly the best in England.

"I have never made it better than I did under his beady eye, but then we made it with the dregs of the glasses and bottles from the customers' tables. So whether it was the quality of the local birds, the excellent wines or that soupçon of saliva from each glass that made the difference I will never know." Nigel Slater

Nigella recommends collecting dregs from bottles of wine and freezing them for later use. This could be one of them.

The ultimate version though is perhaps one created (for charity) at a price of €1000 a plate by Le Coq d'Argent, whose description as reported by an indignant Luke Mackay in The Guardian, read:

"Marinated for 24 hours in one of the finest French vintages, Le Chambertin Grand Cru, Trapet 2009, the chicken is soft and tender, with elegantly rich and fruity undertones from the premium wine". Does that not strike you as grotesque? Pointless? I can buy a bottle of Le Chambertin Grand Cru, Trapet 2009 for £250 from a wine merchant. Do you know what I wouldn't do with it? I wouldn't make gravy. What do you think happens to "fruity undertones" when you boil up wine with bacon and onions? What chance is there of "complexity and floral notes" when you're simmering the stuff with a bloody chicken leg?" Luke Mackay - The Guardian

Which brings me back to Julia's suspicion of the quick and easy. And I have to say that Elizabeth David's Dijon restaurant version seems pretty quick and easy to me. Anyway I had a look at the aggregator of recipes from most of the more mainstream food magazines in Australia. They have 21 recipes which range from - two from Curtis Stone which appeared in the Coles Magazine, and which are actually pretty classic, although the first one has a fancy finish in that he crisps the chicken skin in the oven to garnish with: No. 1 with the crispy skin 1and number 2 - down to Easy coq au vin from Food Ideas. The audience, remember, is ordinary cooks, so nothing complicated here, and yet pretty 'authentic'

And yes, in the Taste files there is indeed much messing around - Coq au vin pie, Coq au vin with a gratin topping, Tray-baked coq au vin, Quick ...

To be honest I have never really understood why the red wine. I mean Burgundy has white wine too. And of course you can indeed make a coq au vin with white wine - normally known as Coq au Riesling - which would make it German surely? Anyway I recommend Nigel Slater's version of Coq au Riesling as described on the Simply Delicious website:

"You should make this if you like chicken. If you like mushrooms. If you like creamy sauces. If you like Food." Simply Delicious

I have made this but I see I have not made any notes. It includes cream, which no version of Coq au vin does, but it was indeed very nice.

It's such a classic pairing that I cannot believe that all the European countries don't have a version of their own. I should look into it some time.

"The story is there for all to read. The chicken, the garlic, the bottle of wine, the long, slow cooking time. Such a recipe wreaks of its history and its place in the life of those who invented it. You can see how the whole thing worked for them, how the dish slotted into the farmer's life, its place in the landscape" Nigel Slater

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