Lusting after Coq Au Vin

Here I am back, shamelessly, order- ing for the fourth time in about as many weeks Gavin Hughes’s pappardelle with red wine and chicken.

I vowed last time that I would lay that particular pleasure to rest – even three times was ridiculous, given a menu filled with so many other tantalising prospects. Furthermore, the night is so mild, in the low 20s, weather infinitely better suited to, say, the waiter’s recommendation of local prawns with angel-hair pasta. It’s no good: I have thought about this chicken pasta dish the entire afternoon.

The funny thing is that chef Gavin told me, the first time I gushed, that it had been a way of transforming Coq au Vin: one of the lovely leaps a dish may make in a chefly bid to wring every possible use out of it before withdrawing it from the menu. And perhaps that is why I adore it so much, because Coq au Vin is one of those great classics that transcend food fads and fancies, that are timeless and almost universally admired.

French in origin, naturellement, it was traditionally cock cooked in red wine, ideally a cock from Bresse (famed for its poultry) and a wine from Burgundy. According to one source, the older the rooster is, the better the Coq au Vin – although among the plethora of versions I have come across are many for whom the cooking times suggested would call for ones substantially younger.

It is essentially a braise of chicken cooked in wine, lardons, mushrooms, often tiny onions and garlic, aromatics such as bay leaves, thyme and parsley, sometimes brandy. The sauce is enriched and thick- ened by either lightly coating the poultry pieces in seasoned flour before browning, or composing a roux or a beurre manie, that mixture of flour mashed into butter and whisking it in toward the end; very old recipes called for the addition of blood.

The lardons ideally should be of salt pork although bacon, unsmoked or smoked, is generally used. One recipe by a June Platt which dates back to 1936 calls for ‘cold boiled ham cut in 1/2-inch squares’.

While legends trace the dish to Julius Caesar and ancient Gaul, the recipe was only documented in the early 20th century. Some of the ones I looked at specify a surprisingly small quantity of red wine – Boulestin in 1926 recommends ‘a tumbler- ful of claret or burgundy’ after a glass of brandy; someone called Mary Bromfield in 1953 ‘one wine glass red wine’ after the unorthodox tomato puree, and even June Platt merely allows for ‘one generous cup of burgundy’. I am naturally drawn to the more modern interpretations which require at least half a bottle of a burgundy, pinot noir or Cotes du Rhone – some of which is employed to marinate the meat in ad- vance, preferably overnight together with aromatics. This is the way Gavin does it and this I am sure explains why this results in a sauce so richly, densely, almost stickily and headily glorious.

I myself make Coq au Vin every now and again, deriving an inexplicable pleasure from the laborious peeling of dozens of tiny pickling onions whose skins I have first loosened with boiling water; washing and patting dry and trimming endless button mushrooms hand-selected for their uniform size. Best made the day before, like so many braises, so the flavours intensify overnight and, more importantly, all you have to do for your guests the following evening is simmer the heat back into it slowly, gently and fragrantly, and whip up your most velvety mash to serve with it. The last time I was at Gavin’s restaurant there was a note addressed to me on the table when I arrived, apologising for the fact the pappardelle with chicken in red wine was finally off the menu. My foolish greedy heart lurched in disappointment until I read the PS : ‘Only joking!’

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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