Back to Basics

Everything new is old again, or at least it seems that way at my local farmers’ market. I buy eggs from a guy named David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms, a grass-fed-beef operation where his cows are 100 percent pasture raised, and where his chickens follow the cattle through the pasture in an intensive management style sometimes associated with Joel Salatin. Anyway, Evans has had chickens for sale the last two Saturdays—both hens and roosters, feet and heads attached. Evans is up-front about the age of these birds—about two years—and about their not being suitable for roasting or frying. Too tough, he says; better to make soup, or at least a slow braise. But it’s hard to believe that sort of warning when you’ve never bought any chicken in your life that wasn’t a plump young hen.

Well, the first time I made one of these birds—a huge rooster—it was so tough we didn’t finish it, even though I’d braised the thing nice and slow. The second week I bought a hen, hoping that would make a difference, and then had a stroke of luck. I’d just bought a new cookbook, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange: The Original Companion for French Home Cooking; first published in the late 1920s as a French home cooking manual like our Joy of Cooking, it’s the book that inspired both Julia Child and Paul Aratow, the first chef de cuisine at Chez Panisse. Hoping to get rolling on my new book, and continue my self-guided tour of French cooking, I flipped to the chicken section. The first shock was to find that it takes the whole project right from the top, with instructions on how to pluck the feathers (“This is much easier when the beast has just been killed and not yet refrigerated. You start at the head …”). Next come sections on “The feet” (“To pull off the skin, dip the bird for 30 seconds in boiling water. Wrap a towel around your right hand; take first one foot and then the other in this hand, pulling it toward you: the skin comes off like a glove”), and on “To flame the fowl” (“Flaming removes the long hairs found all over the skin of the beast”), and, then, on “To gut the fowl.”

Anyway, here’s the part that caught this cook’s eye, while hoping to make a nice dinner from an old laying hen. Again and again, Madame E. Saint-Ange wants her young French housewives (and this middle-aged Californian surfer, 81 years later) to know that cooking times must be greatly increased when dealing with older birds. I’m here to learn, so I took heed and used an Olney recipe from Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook and let that old hen braise and braise, hour upon hour. The result? Well, to quote Saint-Ange, again: “be aware that prolonged cooking cannot make an old and tough bird tender; only the bouillon is improved by this.” And indeed it was; the resulting sauce, which blended masses of garlic with lemon and stock, was a miracle.

The wine wasn’t bad either. Earlier that day, like a jerk, I’d walked into the Wine House in San Francisco and asked if they carry any Kermit Lynch wines.

The young man looked perplexed. “Ah … well, he’s sort of a competitor.”

Duh. Both places import French wines, and the Wine House is a distributor for Robert Kacher Selections, which has a big portfolio of French wines. Anyway, the guy politely steered me to a Côtes du Rhône Villages that I liked a lot, and that made a great match with my tasty (if tough) chicken:

2003 Domaine Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne
Grapes: 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, 10 percent Mourvèdre
Region: France, Rhône Valley. Côtes du Rhône Villages is a slightly more exclusive designation than just Côtes du Rhône. It means the wine comes from one of a number of villages in the area that are legally permitted to claim the name of the village on the bottle—in this case, Cairanne.
Wood: None, as this cuvée is made entirely in tanks, unstemmed
Alcohol: 13.5 percent, according to the bottle
Price: $17.99 from the Wine House in San Francisco
My Tasting Notes: My main reaction to this wine is that it made an interesting and instructive contrast to some of the Vin de Pays du Vaucluse wines I’ve been drinking lately. It had the same basic flavors at play, but in a noticeably more refined mix and balance, with only the faintest of musk/earth/funk … from the Mourvèdre, maybe? And the rest of the wine was a suite of mellow spice and dry red fruit. I thought it was beautiful, soft, and satisfying.