Van jokes aside, this is a dish which, in my mind, will be forever associated with the late, great Keith Floyd – it's the kind of cunningly rustic French cookery he delighted in, designed to wring every last ounce of flavour from bargain-basement ingredients.
It's not going to win any prizes for thrift these days, elderly cockerels and rough local wines being hard to come by for most of us, but be reassured, this brief trip down memory lane is worth every centime.
Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham note in the preface to their recipe that "it would have to be a complete moron who managed to cock up a coq au vin," but I fear this may have been more for the sheer pleasure of the word play; it may be hard to make chicken, red wine, bacon and shallots taste bad, but equally, the dish requires thought.
The whole bird
The name coq au vin suggests a poule au pot type arrangement, but curiously one rarely sees the dish made with a whole bird. I discover why when I try Anthony Bourdain's recipe, from the Les Halles Cookbook, which calls for a trimmed, 1.35kg chicken, amongst about 15 other things.
"I know it looks like a lot of ingredients, and that the recipe might be complicated. Just take your time," he says reassuring. "You should, with any luck, reach a Zen-like state of pleasurable calm." (Note that this will not happen if you fail to clock the first instruction, to marinate the bird in red wine and various aromatics overnight, before cooking it for that evening's dinner party.)
Searing a chicken on all sides is hard, even with tongs – it's a cumbersome, slippery beast at the best of times and even harder to grasp when gruesomely Pinot-purple with wine. Setting it aside, I sauté onions, celery and carrot until golden brown, add flour, and then stir in the reserved marinade. The chicken then stews in this for an hour and a quarter, in which time I cook the lardons, mushrooms and pearl onions until golden brown.
"Your work is pretty much done," Bourdain chips in at this point. Twenty-six hours after I first uncorked the wine, this is not entirely true – having made a thickened red wine sauce in the onion pan, I must then strain the cooking liquid into it, swirl in 2 tbsp butter, joint the chicken, chuck in the golden bits, and then "dazzle [my] friends with [my] brilliance". The sauce is good, the chicken is tender, but there's no denying they look disappointed – chicken 'n' sauce is not what they came here for.
Coq au complex
Richard Olney, author of The French Menu Cookbook, recently voted the best of all time by an Observer Food Monthly panel, observes "it is only logical that a bird no more than 2 months old, though perfect for a sauté … should be less satisfactory in a dish whose qualities depend on the flavour and gelatinous material which, over an extended period, may be drawn from the meat into a reduced and concentrated sauce." As a compromise, he suggests using leg and thigh pieces (which lend themselves better to this type of preparation than do breasts) and replacing half the wine with a "rich gelatinous veal stock".
I brown the lardons, set them aside, and then gently cook the carrot and onion pieces in their fat until soft, and then brown the chicken pieces on all sides, sprinkling them with flour towards the end. I then douse them with cognac and wine (and a reassuringly jellied stock), bring the whole lot to the boil, and then transfer it to an oven dish, scrapings and all, and stick it in there to stew for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, I cook the mushrooms and the pearl onions.
So far, so simple. However, the sauce-making process is yet in its infancy. Once it's out of the oven, and after removing the chicken and carrots from the pot, I must then strain the cooking liquid into a pan, and put it on the heat "so as to permit its contents to simmer only on one side". This encourages a skin to form, containing, Olney alleges, "fat plus other impurities" which I can then pull to the side and discard – on a regular basis for half an hour or so.
As if reading my mind, he observes tartly that this dépouillement is often avoided "because it is time-consuming and boring", which is a great pity, given it is "essential to the purity and digestibility of the sauce". That done, I may reunite the ingredients in the original dish and finish it off with a final half hour in the oven. The finished result is good – the meat falls off the thighs and legs – but the sauce, while pleasant, lacks the kind of oomph I'd hope for after such effort.
My Damascene moment comes when I read Elizabeth David on the subject. After wisely observing in French Provincial Cooking that, in traditional recipes, it is "difficult to get the sauce to the right consistency without spoiling the bird by overcooking", she gives a recipe which involves making a sauce first, and then cooking the bird in it.
"Unorthodox though it may be," she admits, "this method produces an excellent coq au vin". I reduce chicken stock, wine and aromatics by half, meanwhile browning lardons, onions and chicken pieces, and then flambé the meat in cognac – a thrillingly dashing touch – and simmer it in the reduced sauce for 40 minutes. I then remove the meat and vegetables from the pot, and thicken the sauce with a beurre maniére. The sauce is rich and savoury, but there's not enough of it: the dish is undeniably dry. More work needed here, clearly.
Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham use a similar method, but manage to reduce it to a mere two paragraphs: reduce the wine, aromatics and a spoonful of redcurrant jelly (no stock here), brown the chicken, then the pancetta, stew the onions and mushrooms, flame with Cognac, and then put it all together and cook for about an hour. The vegetables are a bit mushy, and I find the sauce a little bit sweet thanks to the jelly, but it's a good quick option.
The final reckoning
I'm basing my final recipe on Elizabeth David's, but using thighs and legs, à la Richard Olney, and without thickening the sauce at the end, as she and Julia Child do – this isn't a British stew, and I don't think it needs it. I've also used an all-wine sauce, because the gelatine from the bones is sufficient without the stock. Rather than marinating the chicken overnight, I'd advise making the dish the day before, as Simon and Lindsay advise, to give the flavours a chance to blend and mellow.
As its name suggests, wine is an important part of this recipe, so don't just pop down to the corner shop for a plastic bottle of cooking stuff – although it doesn't have to be from Burgundy, you'll get the best results from a silky, fruity pinot noir. If you find the finished sauce is too thin and acidic, a spoonful of redcurrant jelly, as used by Hopkinson and Bareham, should save the day – but it's easier to buy the right wine in the first place. Serve with boiled potatoes or plain rice, a green salad, and a toast to Keith.
Perfect coq au vin
1 bottle pinot noir
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
1 small onion, cut into quarters
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed with a knife, plus 1 peeled and finely sliced
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of thyme
1 tbsp butter
150g piece of streaky bacon, cut into thick chunks
2 tbsp plain flour
4 chicken thighs
2 chicken legs
20 baby onions or 10 shallots, peeled but left whole (drop them briefly in boiling water first to loosen the peel)
20 button mushrooms, or 10 white mushrooms, quartered
4 tbsp cognac
1. Pour the wine into a saucepan and add the carrot, celery, onion, crushed garlic, bay leaf and 4 sprigs of thyme. Bring to the boil and reduce by half, then strain and discard the flavourings.
2. Heat the butter over a medium-high flame in a large, heavy-based pan with a lid and then add the bacon. Cook until golden, then lift out with a slotted spoon and put aside. Meanwhile, tip the flour on to a plate and season well. Roll the chicken pieces in it to coat them.
3. Put the chicken in the pan, in batches if necessary, and brown well on all sides, then lift out and put with the bacon. (Your bacon should have given off enough fat for there still to be enough in the pan for the next stage, but if not, add another tablespoon of butter or a glug of oil.)
4. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the onions or shallots. Cook for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until they are beginning to caramelise, then add the mushrooms and the sliced garlic and cook for a further 4 minutes, then lift out of the pan and set aside (but not with the meat).
5. Turn up the heat, pour a little of the reduced wine into the pan and scrape the bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon, then put in the chicken and the bacon, keeping a few bits of the latter back as garnish. Pour over the brandy and set it alight, then, when the flames have gone out, add the rest of the wine and thyme leaves. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover and simmer gently for an hour.
6. Add the onions, mushrooms and garlic and simmer for another 20 minutes, keeping the lid only half on this time. Taste for seasoning and serve with the rest of the bacon sprinkled over the top, and some boiled potatoes or rice – if you're making it the day before you want to eat, which will improve its flavour, then lift the solidified fat off the top before reheating.
Is coq au vin the best chicken stew ever devised, or a triumph of the French talent for culinary self promotion? How do you like to make yours, and which other Gallic classics deserve a revival?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010