Coq au vin from the French countryside


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
bouquet garni
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.


Marlis said...

Oh my goodness, that sounds marvelous. My husband though would be appalled at such wanton use of cognac though. LOL. Now, what are bacon lardons? And do we need both bacon lardons and fatback /salt porck or either or? Merci beaucoup, mon ami et bon appetit.

Stephfret said...

Hi Marlis,
Lardons are just pieces of very thick bacon, chopped into little cubes. I'm not sure what a common equivalent would be in the US- maybe if you could find more of a Canadian or UK-style thick bacon, or even cubes of pancetta would work. Failing that, chopped up thin sreaky American bacon would be fine too, even if not totally authentic. Helene calls for both bacon and 'I don't know the word in English, a very thick piece of fat from the back of a pig.' I translated this as salt pork, but Southern fatback may be a more accurate description. The butcher in the UK didn't know what I was talking about, but he cut a chunk of fat off the back of the pig for me, so I assume this is close to Helen's recipe! I'm sure the salt pork/ fatback could be left out with no problem. If you let your husband light the splash of cognac on fire, maybe he'll forgive you for not drinking it! I hope you enjoy it- bon appetit!

Stephfret said...

...that's 'streaky' bacon, not 'sreaky'!

Marlis said...

Oh, I see, I think I know what to get from our butcher. I have a farmer in mind I could hit up for a 'viagra age' bird. Too funny. What red wine did you use and what did you serve it with?


Marlis said...

By serve 'it' with I didn't mean the wine but the finished meal. I thought a nice baguette and a mesclun salad with my home made balsamic salad dressing.

Stephfret said...

Well, I used an Australian Shiraz which I realise detracts a little from the dish's authenticity (but it was on sale so...what the hell?) If I was being true to Helene I would go for a Cote-du-Rhone of some kind. Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, or Saint Josef all spring to mind, as they're great for Syrah and very close to the Gamon farm.

We ate our meal simply with buttered new potatoes and plenty of wine (the same Shiraz we cooked with), and then ate a wonderful chestnut chocolate cake from Jamie Oliver's newest book for dessert. Yum!

I think your idea of a simple salad and bread sound like the perfect accompaniments!

Marlis said...

thanks for the compliment :) The potatoes sound lovely. And as for the wine, I've always said :'Never cook with something you aren't willing to drink out of a good glass' so that's perfect.

I grew up on a farm and we used to grow and kill our own meat. Sometimes it was easier than other times. Chickens, no problem, our pigs, that was harder....bunnies, sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard. It depended on the animal's personality.

Stephfret said...

I can imagine! The chicken experience was really not too difficult, but then they weren't my chickens so maybe I'd feel differently if I had raised them myself. I guess a pig would be pretty tough- they have alot of personality, don't they? But I think you must value your food so much more when you've grown or raised it yourself, which is no bad thing. I don't imagine you would have wasted any meat on your farm after putting so much into its upbringing...

Sue said...

Mmmmm... this does look delicious. It would be nice to see more of Helene's recipes preserved and shared in this venue. An admirable woman, in my book. (I wonder if my own adult offspring would have embraced being asked to turn off Scooby-Doo or Dukes of Hazzard as children... and go out to thin the sunflower seeds or pick ripe apricots?)
Nice work, from start to finish!

redmenace said...

I'm pretty much in love with all of you. You, Isabel and Helene. Lovely story. Lovely recipe!

Stephfret said...

Sue- If you ask Isabelle, she'd have rather been watching Scooby Doo too! I would love to learn more of Helene's recipes...maybe one day I'll have the chance to meet her.

redmenace- Ah, thanks! What a nice comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'll be sure to let Isabelle and Helene know they have an admirer in Seattle- this will tickle them to no end, especially since neither of them have ever been there!

Chef Dennis Littley said...

The first time I had Coq au vin, was in a little bistro in Paris.....what a wonderful memory! Yours looks delicious!

Stephfret said...

Thanks Chef Dennis! It's great how one dish can bring up a lovely memory like that...

Marlis said...

Yes, pigs were the hardest. They are usually smarter than a dog and do have their own personalities. However, one animal we never ended up eating was a black and white hare. He and his sibling were housed in a dirt floor shack and he started to dig his way out. Except he never ran away. He'd walk around with our free range chickens and munched on plants and came when the chickens were called to feed. He also loved to just lay stretched out in the sun. We'd plug up the holes initially and put him back in but he'd dig another one just next to the previous one. After a few holes we were worried about the structural integrity of the shack being compromised so he was allowed out with the fowl in the morning. His sibling had no such ambitions, too scared. We couldn't eat such an amazing animal and eventually it was eaten by a predatory animal when it started straying further and further from the main part of the farm. His sibling however, was delicious!

We grew our own meat in the form of hares, geese, ducks, chickens, pigs and goat.

Stephfret said...

Wow! You really had the full experience of raising your own meat, and I’m sure there must have been times when it was difficult to kill an animal that you had grown attached to. What a funny story about the hare- I wonder what made it so tame? You must have some wonderful family recipes…

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