The perfect coq au vin

The perfect coq au vin

Le Beaujolais owner/chef, Frenchman Eric Lépine, has created their first signature dish - a totally traditional French coq au vin

Read the plate. Does the food on it have integrity, do the ingredients belong together, does the recipe ring true? Or is it, like so much modern cooking, a mess of ingredients that are out of synchronisation and have no affinity with one another? I love a recipe that really works, where you feel there is something unequivocally right about it. Where the cook has remained true to the dish, to its provenance, its history, its soul.

I feel that way about coq au vin. Sadly, sometimes recipes fall out of favour, buried under an avalanche of new and passing fancies. This does not mean that cooking should stand still.

I make coq au vin every week, twice a week (believe me when I say that this is one of those dishes that improves, rather than deteriorates, after a few days in the fridge).


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The bird

The older the bird, the richer the sauce. Have a word with your butcher: once you tell him you want a mature chicken/cockerel for long, slow cooking, he might be able to order a mature bird for you. Best hunting grounds for older birds are traditional butchers and farmers’ markets. With their access to fresh air, free-range birds have had the opportunity to build stronger, thicker bones than anything kept indoors, and will make a more sumptuous sauce.

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The wine

Much is made of using good quality wine in cooking - a fruity, big-flavoured wine will obviously add more interest than a thin, cheap one - but there is no need to push the boat out. It doesn’t have to be from Burgundy, but I would feel uncomfortable using anything else. A loud, inky Beaujolais will do the trick.

The aromatics

Most classic recipes call for onions and carrots only, but I always add celery and mushroom too towards the end, for their earthy notes. Big fat French onions, the sort that dangle on strings from bicycle handlebars, are what you want for the backbone of the stew. Tiny, tight-skinned button onions are correct for adding nearer the end, but are infuriatingly difficult to find when you want them. I have used small, firm shallots before now and got away with it. A little bunch of fresh thyme and a few bay leaves are really all the herbs you need here, otherwise the dish will become confused.

The bacon

It just isn’t coq au vin without some fat, juicy smoked streaky bacon. The rashers with which the British are obsessed are too thin - if they don’t burn, they'll disintegrate. What you need is a solid lump that you can cut into thick dices.

The accompaniments

My usual choice is to plump for steamed potatoes, for the simple reason that I like to squash them into the gravy with my fork, and I add some French beans for the good form.

THE RECIPE

Serves 8

Large chicken, jointed into 8 pieces, giblets and carcass savedLarge onion, two  carrots, few cloves, couple of juniper berries and a few peppercorns for the stock150g smoked streaky bacon in the piece 30g butter 2 medium onions Large carrot 2 ribs of celery 2 cloves of garlic 2 tbsps flour 2 tbsps cognac½ glass of portBottle of red wine (Beaujolais)4 or 5 small sprigs of thyme 3 bay leaves (fresh goes with no saying)3-4 sprigs of parsley stalk40g butter 12 small onions, peeled 200g small button mushrooms or even better some brown cap or chestnut mushroomBoiled or steamed potatoes and French beans to serve

Put the chicken carcass, its giblets and any bits and bobs of bones and flesh with an onion and a carrot into a roasting tin and roast till golden then place in a deep pan, add a spring of thyme and a bay leaves cover with water, add, half a dozen whole peppercorns, two juniper berries, one cloves and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer until you need it. Ps: do not cover.Cut the streaky bacon into small dices - not quite as thick as your little finger. Put them, together with the butter, into a thick-bottomed casserole - one of enamelled cast iron would be perfect (eg le Creuset) - and let them cook over a good moderate to hot heat. Stir the bacon from time to time - it mustn’t burn - then, when it is golden, lift it out into a bowl, leaving behind the fat in the pan.Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and place them in the hot fat in the casserole, so that they fit snugly yet have room to colour. Turn them when the underside is pale gold. The skin should be honey-coloured rather than brown - it is this colouring of the skin, rather than what wine or herbs you might add later, that is crucial to the flavour of the dish. Lift the chicken out and put into the bowl with the bacon. By now you should have a thin film of goo starting to stick to the pan. This is where much of your flavour will come from.While the chicken is colouring in the pan, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrot, and wash and chop the celery. With the chicken out, add the onions and carrot to the pan and cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the onion is translucent and it has gone some way to dissolving some of the pan ‘stickings’. Add the garlic, peeled and cut (not too fine), as you go. Return the chicken and bacon to the pan, stir in the flour and let everything cook for a minute or two before pouring in the red wine vinegar, then the cognac, wine, port, and tucking in the herbs. Spoon in ladles of the simmering chicken stock until the entire chicken is covered. Bring to the boil, then, just as it gets there, turn the heat down so that the sauce bubbles gently. Cover partially with a lid.Melt the butter in a small pan, add the small peeled onions and then the mushrooms, halving or quartering them if they are too big. Let them cook until they are golden, then add them to the chicken with a seasoning of salt and pepper and do not forget at this stage the chopped parsley stalk.Check the chicken after 40 minutes to see how tender it is. It should be soft but not falling from its bones. It will probably take about an hour, depending on the type of chicken you are using. Lift the chicken out and place in a bowl.Turn the heat up under the sauce and let it bubble enthusiastically until it has reduced a little. As it bubbles down it will become thicker - though not thick - and will become quite glossy.Return the chicken to the pan and serve with the potatoes.

Bonne appétit.

Eric

Le Beaujolais, 37 Castle Street, Cirencester, GL7 1QD, tel: 01285 644440,www.restaurantlebeaujolais.co.uk

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