Isabelle and I became friends over food. For the last six years, we have eaten lunch together at least three times a week in our company canteen, both passionately enjoying one of the greatest perks our company has to offer: a home-cooked meal, served every day at 1PM. Over onion tarts, Thai curries, and cannellini bean soups, she tells me stories of growing up on a farm in the Rhône Valley, while I try to curb my secret desire to have been born French.
According to Isabelle it was all incredibly boring, but I’m fascinated by her childhood experiences thinning out the sunflower crop and picking ripe apricots. She also tells me about her mother Hélène, who runs their farm and still finds time to keep a personal vegetable garden, cook traditional meals every day, make all of the family’s jams and preserves, and ferment bruised fruit into liqueur. Hélène has become a kind of food hero to me, even though we have never met.
So, last week when I decided to participate in the slaughter of a chicken for my dinner, I knew exactly who to go to for advice. Hélène first killed an animal when she was about seventeen. Her job was to cook lunch at the local school, but the school system didn’t provide a budget for buying ingredients. Instead, farmers would drop off surplus crops, and it was Hélène’s job to make a meal of whatever she was given. One day she was handed a boxful of live rabbits, and was forced to learn there and then how to kill and clean them or else the children would go without lunch.
What resourcefulness, what guts! She must think we’re ridiculous: a bunch of thirty-something city dwellers trying to figure out how to kill a chicken and cook it, a task she’s been performing for forty years. But graciously, she carefully described her methods and shared her recipe for coq au vin. Yes, you lucky people, I’m going to share it with you.
Traditionally, coq au vin is made with a cockerel. Once the bird reaches its viagra years it’s time for the chop, but because an older animal is tough and has plenty of connective tissue, it is best cooked very slowly in liquid to break it down and tenderise it. The origins of the dish aren’t entirely clear—though there are some legends involving both Julius Cesar and Napoleon, it isn’t likely that they are true. What is known is that the dish is over 400 years old, and that it likely grew out of necessity on farms where no resources could be wasted.
‘But it’s a very old-fashioned recipe,’ Hélène protested when Isabelle asked how she makes it. Exactly! There’s a time for trendy food and a time to stick to traditions, and I figure that making a country coq au vin is just the right occasion to take advice from someone with experience. Hélène holds a precious knowledge of the culinary traditions of her region, and I’m grateful for the chance to learn even a little part of her repertoire.
Hélène Gamon’s Coq au Vin
1 kilo/ 2 pound chicken, jointed
50 g/ 3 T butter
2 onions, sliced in rounds
2 T plain flour
2 T cognac
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 bottle red wine
80 g/ 1 cup bacon lardons
1 piece fatback or salt pork
salt and pepper
100 g/ 2 cups mushrooms (any kind will do, or mix several types)
200 ml/ 3/4 cup very fresh chicken blood (optional)
Brown the chicken pieces in the butter. Half way through the browning, add the onions. Once the chicken pieces are brown on all sides, mix in the flour, then pour in the cognac and light it on fire. Add the garlic, wine, bouquet garni, bacon, and salt pork. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.
Cover and turn the heat way down, as low as your stovetop will possibly go. Let simmer on very low heat for about 2 hours, then turn the heat off for an hour or two. Turn the heat back on as low as possible for another 2 hours, and then off again. Continue this way all day, until you are ready to eat. The idea is to let it cook as slowly and with as little heat as possible.
When you are just about ready to eat, turn the heat up to medium and add the mushrooms and blood. Let simmer for another 10 minutes until the mushrooms are just cooked through. Remove the bouquet garni and salt pork piece, and serve.