"Is there anyone who appears duller than Delia Smith? Maybe not; but I would suspect that there are millions of people who are precisely as dull as her: us." The Independent
I cooked this for dinner last night. I have been feeling a bit down of late so I decided I would cook one of my all time favourite and very special dishes, Delia's Chicken with sherry vinegar and tarragon sauce. And it didn't disappoint. Her recipes rarely do.
Why is it so special? Well it was that first ever taste. The kind of sensation you only get every now and then. Just wow. And it is so very simple to make, although I do admit it has a fair bit of relatively expensive sherry in it, and sherry vinegar too which for a time was a bit difficult to source. Not any more - it's on your supermarket shelf every day. Crème fraiche too, which, for a time was also difficult to source. As an aside I really don't understand why crème fraiche is not a much more common ingredient here. In France it's actually more difficult to find straight cream than crème fraiche. It's slightly sour, and doesn't curdle when you cook with it. And it tastes delicious.
Anyway, in spite of my being lazy and not browning the chicken sufficiently, and despite having made it with a cut up chicken breast rather than a cut up chicken the whole thing was sufficiently wonderful to restore my faith in myself as a cook, just a little bit. And the peas that she suggested as a side were perfect too. The only thing I am cross about is that I did not take a photograph for this blog, which I meant to do. I just wanted to get stuck in.
I think the recipe also demonstrates just what it is I like about Delia. This dish is special, worthy of serving up to guests, as well as yourself. It's simple and it's a slight twist on a classic dish. She shares this ability - the twist - with Jamie I think. And yes you don't go to her books for literary flourishes as in Nigel or Nigella, or enthusiastic slang like Jamie what you get in the introduction to the dish is:
"This is my adaptation of a classic French dish called poulet au vinaigre.
It's very simple to make: the chicken is flavoured with tarragon leaves and simmered in a mixture of sherry vinegar and medium sherry without a lid, so that the liquid cooks down to a glossy, concentrated sauce. Serve with some well-chilled Fino sherry as an apéritif."
And that, believe me is rather more than you usually get as well. I suppose her videos and old TV shows are pretty ordinary, but they are clear and somehow compelling. They just lack pizzazz I suppose.
"Any idiot can be themselves; there are only about two people left alive who know how to address the world with a courteous formality, and Delia is one of them ... She's lovely. She's so polite." Zoe Williams - The Guardian
In recent years she seems to have concentrated on two things - her beloved Norwich City Football Club - which she and her husband own - and the Delia Online Cookery School on her website. These are her passions. Though she goes about the teaching in a quite different way to Jamie - who is sort of doing the same thing. I actually just had a look at the pair of them showing you how to boil an egg. And yes Delia's video is longer, slower and more like a school lesson, but having said that you do learn quite a lot about eggs. Jamie, on the other hand, (see below) has a slightly different method of boiling, though lots of good reasons for why, and teaches you some different things. It's a real contrast in style and what you learn. I suspect that Jamie's version is really more attractive for the young in particular.
Back to why I really love Delia though. Her recipes. I have many of her cookbooks and I have cooked several things from each one, and I don't think I have ever had a failure. Like Robert Carrier - who can wax lyrical but doesn't much. I don't think Delia can. Delia turns 80 this year, so it's small wonder that she doesn't really want to do any more television. I suspect that most of her website is run by others these days too. But she has certainly been a huge influence on cooks of my age.
Back to her chicken which, as she said, is a variation on Poulet au vinaigre - a Lyonnais dish apparently made famous in modern times by Paul Bocuse. As you can see from the picture his version is not the same as Delia's. Besides using red wine vinegar, it also has tomatoes in the mix. and this does appear to be a fairly common addition to more 'classic' versions. I might try it some time though as it really looked good. I actually could not find any 'classic' versions of this dish in any of my French cookbooks. Nothing at all from Elizabeth David which is a great pity because it would have been interesting to see what she said about the combination of chicken and vinegar - a classic pairing according to Rebecca Firkser of Food52
"Chicken isn’t a fatty meat compared with, say, beef, but schmaltzy, well-salted, crispy-skinned chicken is still rich. And there’s no better way to cut fat and salt than with acid, be it freshly squeezed citrus or, arguably chicken’s favorite, vinegar."
Within the basic concept - chicken, vinegar, tarragon, cream, there seems to be a high degree of variation, not just in the ingredients used but also in how much of each. Delia uses quite a lot of both the sherry and the vinegar, others have a much smaller amount.
Obviously there is a wide range of vinegars used, and Nigel Slater has a version that uses Vermouth instead of sherry, and cream instead of crème fraiche - a fair bit of cream and so it looks a lot paler. In this instance the vinegar is tarragon vinegar, with the tarragon flavour heightened by some fresh sprigs. Delia has quite a lot of tarragon - fresh tarragon and it shines through.
I also found a version from French Cooking Academy - which isn't as official as it sounds - it's a personal blog, there is also one from the BBC by Henry Harris and another from Nigel Slater - Grilled mustard and herb chicken - which probably strays the furthest from the original, if there is such a thing, in that it is marinaded in the vinegar and tarragon, rather than braised. Well it's grilled.
But for me Delia is the winner. It is truly divine and I make it on a regular basis. You just have to make sure you always have some sherry in the cupboard if you want to make it on a whim. We don't drink sherry much anymore do we?