HAfter having spent all the childhood vacations and all the summers of my twenties in France, I imagined knowing a little about the place. I had slipped over its mountains in winter, and done my time in the August jams on the highway of the sun – but when I cycled across the country for a book a few years ago, I realized I had barely scratched the surface, especially when it came to food.
Of course, I was well acquainted with the great hitters like coq au vin and mussels marinere, which represent French cuisine abroad, and I had more than a fleeting knowledge of the powerful southern flavors of Provence. But much of French regional cuisine is much more subtle – despite the popular stereotype, it wasn’t until I got to Marseille that I really got a taste of garlic.
As I returned to my umpteenth plate of perfectly poached white fish White butter sauce, I couldn’t help but think nostalgically of the fiery mustards and hot sauces sitting on my shelf at home. Not that these things aren’t eaten and enjoyed in France, of course, but if you stick to classic French restaurants, you are unlikely to come across them very often.
Then, a few weeks later, I had a revelation. He came after 83 very wet miles in the saddle in the hazy shadow of the Pyrenees, in the city of Pau, homeland of boiled chicken. This simple chicken and vegetable stew holds a sacred place in the hearts of the French, in large part thanks to its associations with the Good King Henri, King of France from 1589-1610. But 400 years later, sitting in the cozy dining room of the dreaded Chez Olive, gazing at the smoking pile of beige in front of me, its attractions were not immediately obvious. Sitting in a puddle of cloudy broth was pale chicken, ghostly turnips, and a pale cabbage leaf stuffed with something brown. Chez Olive was a staple of the local food scene for over 70 years until it sadly closed earlier this year.
Yet from the first bite of the delicately tasty liqueur, with its golden pieces of floating fat, it was clear that this dish needed nothing more. No drop of lime pickle or a pinch of malt vinegar could have improved this perfectly balanced and wonderfully soothing dish. It was a bowl of pure happiness. And, as I was drinking and the rain was still falling, I thought to myself that I had missed the point. Old-fashioned French cuisine is polite: it strives for the harmony of quietly complementary flavors rather than the mismatch of large, strong and conflicting ones. There are, I’m sure, wider parallels to be drawn here… but I’m just making food.
Chez Olive-style chicken in a pot
The stuffing and veg are there to stretch the weekly chicken further, but makes it a full dish in its own right. Chez Olive, they serve it with rice, which is also a nice way to soak up the hearty broth. This is a dish that is worth buying a good chicken for – by that I mean a chicken that has lived a bit and has been lucky enough to develop some flavor. They are much harder to find in the UK than in France: if you can’t make it to a butcher or farm shop, try online. (I found one with feet, which was exciting, but not strictly necessary.) The bird doesn’t have to be huge, as there is enough other stuff here for everyone to be happy.
For the stuffing
A knob of butter
2 bananas or 4 round shallots, finely chopped
2 plump garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
A good grating of nutmeg
4 chicken livers
420g sausage meat (about 6 sausages)
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
2 tbsp armagnac or other brandy
1 good chicken, about 1.8 kg
6 large kale leaves
2 liters of chicken broth
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
4 small leeks, trimmed or 2 large, cut into large pieces
4 small carrots rubbed or 2 large, cut into large pieces
12-16 small new potatoes
4 small turnips, halved if they are on the larger side or 1 large turnip, cut into pieces
For the white sauce
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of flour
2 tablespoons of sour cream
Start with the stuffing. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium-low heat and sauté the shallots until tender, then add the garlic, thyme leaves and nutmeg. Fry for a few more minutes, then let cool.
Meanwhile, finely chop the livers, discard the pieces of filaments and put them in a large bowl. Add the sausage meat and breadcrumbs and stir in, then add the brandy and season. Mix well.
Put about ⅔ of the stuffing inside the chicken, then sew the neck or use cocktail sticks to secure it (my favorite method).
Bring 1.75 liters of chicken broth to a boil in a large saucepan with the peppercorns and add the chicken. Bring back to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer very gently for 45 minutes, then add the vegetables and cook for another 30 to 45 minutes until the chicken and vegetables are cooked (if the chicken juice is clear from the thicker part of the thigh before cooking the vegetables, gently remove it from the pan and set it aside to keep it warm, then increase the heat under the pan).
Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Carefully cut out the base of the hard core of the cabbage leaves and discard them, then blanch them for 2 minutes and let them cool under cold running water to prevent them from cooking further. Dries well.
Stuff the cabbage leaves by rolling a generous tablespoon of the remaining stuffing mixture into a small cylinder at the base of one of the leaves, above the cut stem, then fold over on both sides and continue rolling until at the top of the sheet. Repeat with the rest of the cabbage leaves, then place, seam side down, in the base of the large saucepan. Pour in the remaining 250 ml of broth and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid and lower the heat very low. Cook for 45 minutes then turn off the heat but leave covered to keep warm.
Once the chicken is cooked, keep it warm while you prepare the white sauce, if you are serving it. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then add the flour and cook for a few minutes. Gradually, spoonful by spoonful, whisk in the chicken broth in which the cabbage rolls were cooked. Once smooth, remove from heat and incorporate the crème fraîche. Season as desired.
Cut up the chicken and divide it into shallow bowls with the stuffing, cabbage rolls, vegetables and a good ladle of broth. (If the middle of the stuffing looks pink and you’re worried about that, fry it briefly in a hot pan.) Serve with the white sauce and steamed rice if you want to puff it up further.
• From One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (Mudlark, £ 9.99). To order a copy for £ 9.29, go to guardianbookshop.com