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Coq au vin: translation: chicken with wine; actually I suppose cockerel in wine, but here, I almost doubt that the chicken I buy even in butcher shops rather than supermarkets, are cocks. Hens, plump and varying in taste: not the rather stringy, with long thighbones kind of bird which I think the French devised the dish for. Hence the cooking in wine and if you take it seriously, as I often do, the overnight marinating of the chicken to tenderise it.

That is what I cooked last night. For a son and his girlfriend and a lover. And myself. I started early, frying the bacon lardons and button mushrooms and tiny onions: I could not find shallots, so pickle onions had to do. Then the chicken pieces in half butter-half olive oil. And then, as a pièce d résistance: a show of sorts: I called my lover in to the kitchen to witness the flambé-ing of the saucepan with the onions and mushrooms and bacon (I have long since stopped cooking these separately in preparation for the dish). With a suitable flourish, I splashed(somehow flourish and splash seem irreconcilable but maybe you know what I mean) a soupçon of brandy into the pan, and when I could see the vapourous fumes rising from the pan I half dipped half scooped the pan so that the gas flame got hold of it, and in a big swoosh it caught alight, burning fiercely it’s bluish flame until spent. He was impressed. He has never had a food lover and cook for a wife or soon to be wife. Though his very first wife was a cook at American summer camps. But that is long ago and far away.

The trick of a good coq au vin, besides good ingredients, is I think, precisely that burnished edge the brandy adds. That and precisely the right consistency of the sauce. It has to just coat the back of a tablespoon, dripping off reluctantly as one takes it out of the pot. And it has to be dark, deep brownish red, the chicken pieces stained a magenta to deeper purple, retaining it’s white flesh on the inside. And it has to smell of farmyard and free fields of thyme and grape…

I remember roast chicken only ever as a child at table. Never a stew. Though I do recall chicken a la king: that very bland dish smothered in a kind of a white sauce of shredded chicken and green pepper. Ah, and the broccoli chicken dish my mother used to make. But mostly it was roast chicken for Sunday lunches, or Christmas lunches. Quite a bit later I learnt how to stuff a chicken with herbs and butter and sometimes ricotta and lemon rind, and for very very special, slivers of truffle, under skin so tough and simultaneously so fragile that I never accept help: I get my own fingers into that.

An even earlier memory: my grandfather cutting, nay: axing off a chicken’s head in their back yard on a block of wood which was really the remainder of a tree sawn off because it made too much shade for my gran’s liking.. The chicken was caught in the back yard and carried by the feet: long and creepy looking like in a horror movie; in my grandfathers sure hands, and then the neck placed rather unceremoniously on that block and after a swift  swell swoop the chicken was running around headless: much to the amusement of my brothers it kept running around in that headless chicken way, blood squirting in ever lessening arches from the fatal wound until it keeled over, quietly dead, and ready for my grandmother’s firm fingers plucking feathers from it’s still warm body.

There was a time where I had foresworn ever eating any chicken, thinking about the poor chicken: one minute picking and pecking about, the next minute dead. Last night was not one of them. I dished up with a certain smugness, and loved the way my guests and my beloved tucked in. A really easy recipe: though when I told my son’s girlfriend about it, she seemed skeptical about just how easy it was. But all true: chicken pieces: skin on, bone in, a whole bottle of a red wine(a nice bordeaux blend), mushrooms, shallots and bacon fried off, a whoosh of brandy flamed, and slowly cooking everything together having added a tablespoonful of white flour.

This is probably my favourite chicken dish… one which I don’t make enough of in the cold winter months. And now it’s almost summer. I shall wait for the next really cold, wet summer evening to make another coq au vin. Or another autumn or winter to roll along. And tomorrow morning I shall have leftovers, probably cold and finger-picked out of the tupperware in the fridge. That is if anything is left over from midnight snacking a la Nigella!

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