I have spent the last couple of weeks making many different versions of coq au vin as part of an experiment for a wine magazine, so I thought I should share a few of the things I have learnt.
It is a dish that I have loved from way back in the Seventies, when the recipe was simple: put chicken in a casserole and pour over a tin of cook-in sauce. I think there were various flavours, including white wine, red wine and chicken chasseur. It felt so sophisticated at the time.
I have cooked the dish many times since but there was one burning question which I never saw get answered satisfactorily. What type of wine should you use? White or red is one question, but quality is another: should I spend a lot of money, or use the roughest and cheapest wine going?
I decided to try to find out the answer by trying different wines and tasting the results. Before I could do this I had to come up with a recipe that was interchangeable, as it needed to be as fair as possible. I used the same chicken and same vegetables so that the only variant was the wine.
I kept the recipe as simple as possible in the hope that the truth about the wine would be revealed. First, I fried the skin of chicken thighs in olive oil until they were golden brown and about half cooked. I then took the thighs out of the pan and added vegetables, which picked up the browning bits from the pan. In the meantime I boiled the wine to reduce it and concentrate the flavour.
I then put the thighs back in the pan on top of the vegetables, added the wine and some water and gently simmered the legs, loosely covered, until they were cooked through. This happened very quickly: I then left the contents of the pan to cool down and macerate. I think you could hold the dish at this stage overnight, and the flavours of the sauce would develop and penetrate the chicken.
I then warmed the dish through, and strained the sauce into a pan. Although I disposed of the vegetables at this stage it would be fine to serve them with the dish – but I didn’t want them to interrupt the taste of the sauce. This was an experiment after all, not lunch.
When the sauce was reduced to a powerful flavour I put the chicken thighs back into the pan and warmed them through. For the recipe below I have garnished the dish with cured ham, mushroom and chives. This is a way of getting the bacon, mushroom and onion flavours of the original dish in a different way. Don’t ask me why: I’m a chef and I have to fiddle with everything. You could add button mushrooms, onions and lardons.
My initial findings were that the type of wine you use really doesn’t matter too much: they are all delicious in their own way. A decent beaujolais, a good chianti classico, a cheap Chilean pinot noir and an old oxidised white puligny-montrachet all made a fantastic sauce and I would struggle to pick a favourite. The most important thing was the reduction of the sauce to concentrate the flavours.
The final stage is in a week or two when I’ll be cook for an experienced panel: one with the cheapest supermarket pinot noir and another with one of the greatest chambertins ever made. I will finally have an answer to whether it is worth spending a lot of money on the wine you cook with.