Saturday, June 9, 2012

Coq au Vin, the Traditional Version is Much More Than Just a Chicken Stewed in Wine.

Behind the French Menu.
Bryan Newman
Coq au Vin
Photograph Courtesy of xeeliz.
The original recipe for coq au vin
When considering ordering coq au vin look for a restaurant offering a "Coq au Vin Traditionnel, " the original coq au vin.
How coq au vin began
Coq au Vin began as a large meal prepared on holidays or for family celebrations, and it would have been enough for twelve or more diners. A French restaurant serving Coq au Vin Traditionnel today may have to settle for a somewhat smaller bird but it will still be enough for eight or more diners. 
The cockerel used for coq au vin should be a big, old cockerel, that's a rooster in North America. A cockerel that has ceased to make the ladies happy.  Out of work cockerels are headed for the pot and cockerels are large birds.  Even today most mature French cockerels weigh over two and a half kilos, over five pounds, with some up to 50% more. These will be free-range birds so they will be tasty and they may also be stringy.  Getting a cockerel ready for the pot requires marinating the bird in red wine, often with an added eau-de-vie, for a particular flavor, for at least 24 hours. When the marinade has done its work, the dish will be allowed to slowly cook along with more red wine, herbs and extra chicken broth. Then, when the meat is nearly hanging off the bones, vegetables, mushrooms, and bacon for flavor, will be added; twenty minutes later, the dish may be served.
Coq au vin will be on menus all over France and will offer many distinctive tastes:
Coq à la Bière – A cockerel marinated in beer, not wine; usually this dish is made with a bière brune, a brown beer. To the beer marinade will be added a local eau de vie and often creme fraiche  . The use of beer makes this dish sound, to me as if this version originated in Belgium.
Coq au Champagne – Here in the  Champagne  growing region the local restaurants will bring their version of coq au vin to the table. If an eau-de-vie is used in the marinade along with champagne theirs will be Marc de Champagne; French Marcs are the French take on the Italian Grappa brandies. Outside of  Champagne similar dishes will be on menus with a local Cremant sparkling wine.
Coq au Riesling - This is coq au vin from the Alsace.  The use of the crisp, dry and still fruity Alsatian white Riesling AOP white wine will makes this dish a tasty and different experience.
A serving of Coq au Resiling
Photograph courtesy of emily_*
Coq au Vin de Bourgogne – The région of Burgundy with so much wine and so many excellent dishes a la bourguignonne always had a local version of coq au vin for family festivities and festivals. When the dish came to the restaurants, the chefs had many wonderful red wines to choose from. The wine that you choose to accompany your traditional Coq au Vin de Bourgogne should also be a red. Your aperitif should, of course, be a Kir or a Kir Royale.    Some may tell you that Kir is considered a little passe; however, it is still very much in the spirit of Burgundy. If you prefer a different aperitif consider the Cremant de Bourgonne, Burgundy's wonderful sparkling white wine. Nevertheless, for the coq au vin order a red wine.

A serving of an authentic Coq au Vin de Bourgogne
Photograph courtesy of mmmyoso.
Coq au Vin de Chanturgue or Coq au Vin, Auvergnat.-  Coq au Vin de Chanturgue is almost universally accepted by French chefs as the first restaurant version of coq au vin. Vin de Chanturgue from the Auvergne was the first wine.

Every winegrowing area of France will claim that they invented coq au vin, and despite the paragraph above they are all probably correct. Long before the first restaurant came to Paris experienced French farmer’s wives would have arrived at tasty solutions for old and out of work cockerels. They would use the marinating powers and flavor of red wine. The region of the Auvergne, in the center of France, produced the earliest restaurant version of coq au vin, and that was in the mid-19th century. Visit a restaurant in the Auvergne today that offers Coq au Vin de Chanturgue, and you should have a meal close to the original.

Today the Auvergne is not well-known for its wines.  Nevertheless, until the late 1800’s, the Auvergne was the third most prestigious wine growing region in France after the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Then came phylloxera, a root eating aphid that attacked and destroyed untold numbers of the best vines in all of France.  It also destroyed the Auvergne wine industry.  Much of the French the wine industry, was saved by importing from the USA and the Middle East phylloxera-resistant rootstock; however, in the Auvergne, many vintners gave up. A few carried on and you can visit and try their traditional wines and new wines today including the Vin de Chanturgue,
A glass of Chanturgue AOC.
Photograph courtesy of Maney | Digital.
If you are planning a trip to the Auvergne view their English language website below. Contact them and ask for copies of the maps for the Route de Vins d’Auvergne, the wine road of the Auvergne and the Route de Fromages de Auvergne, the cheese trails of the five famous cheeses of the Auvergne,
Coq au Vin Jaune – Coq au vin made with the famous vin jaune, the yellow wine, from the  Jura.  Jura is a department in the region of Franche-Comte and borders Switzerland to the east.   Vin jaune is made using the Savagnin grape and aged for a minimum of six years and three months in oak barrels. The wine tastes somewhat like a dry sherry, though it is not fortified by added alcohol as sherry is.
Vin Jaune  from the Jura.
Photograph courtesy of nienfanhsun.
The requirements for a genuine Coq au vin.
The meat of a free-range cockerel has a much stronger flavor than any chicken. That, along with the wine chosen, is the secret behind the taste of a real coq au vin. When coq au vin left the farms and began to be served in restaurants, it quickly became a popular dish and has remained so for over 150 years.
With coq au vin so much in demand, that has created problems keeping to the original recipe. One-hundred and fifty years ago, all chickens were raised free-range for both meat and eggs. The chickens raised as free-range hens were supplied a cockerel to maintain order in the flock. Today there are far fewer free-range hens and that creates a collateral shortage of suitable old cockerels.
A cockerel strutting his stuff to impress the chicks.
Photograph courtesy of joysaphine
There are French chefs and restaurants that pay high prices to buy the limited numbers of large, and mature,  cockerels.  Those chefs and restaurants have long-standing arrangements with free-range chicken farmers. Knowledgeable French diners know when they are being served genuine coq au vin and they know that will be charged accordingly. Other chefs have agreements to buy large older chickens that have ceased to lay eggs. These chickens are instead of being sold off cheaply will spend three or four months as free-range birds, free to do as they wish, pecking, clucking, and eating extremely well. That freedom brings more taste and color to their tired wings and legs. It recreates some, but far from all, of the sought after taste, color and texture found in an old cockerel.
White meat or dark meat?
Have you ever wondered why chickens have white meat and dark meat?  The white meat is simply the result of the chickens not using their wings; free-range chickens will have little or no white meat.   I grew up in the North of England and we had free-range chickens.  Those chickens could fly, albeit they could not fly much more than five or ten meters, five or ten yards. However, chickens can fly, and those birds, even with their wing-feathers clipped, could make it to the low branches of trees. The cockerels never had their wing feathers clipped and would fly to the top of the hen houses or a nearby tree to observe their harems from above.  None of those chickens had meat as white as that that we buy today in our local supermarket, and those chickens also tasted like something!  

Ordering coq au vin or chicken stew.
If you order coq au vin and are served a bowl with a small chicken, about enough for a meal for four, then, I am sorry, but that is not coq au vin, modern or traditional. It may be an excellent stew, but it will just be a small and tasty chicken stewed in wine!  In France, self-confident chefs who keep to the traditions will offer that dish as a Fricassée de Poulet, Façon Coq au Vin; a chicken stew prepared in the manner of coq au vin. These will be trained chefs  who are not embarrassed to tell it like it is, and the price charged will be that of a chicken stew not a coq au vin.
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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
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