Coq au Vin is the quintessential bistro dish that remains a sublime French country classic and an essential part of what was once known as cuisine paysanne, a style of cuisine with which we may all have to become better acquainted given the predicted trajectory of Europe’s retail price index.

Coq au Vin, translated less seductively as ‘cockerel in wine’, is a dish that’s comfortingly difficult to ruin yet pleasurably immersive if you’re out to create your own culinary benchmark. A recipe that although easy to assemble, requires some patience as it is rarely quick in the making (a guideline that in my experience goes for most enjoyable dishes a home cook might choose to undertake).

The dish has been cooked in my kitchen on many occasions, and if we include the periodic dispatch of some re-homed cockerels whose fertile and amorous engagements had become but a distant memory or when neighbours complained over the midnight chorus of cock-a-doodle-dooing, then I have frequently given hours in its service. Hours I have never undertaken begrudgingly as most coq au vin recipes invariably call for generous wine inclusion, so with an open bottle or two to hand the occasional requirement for a morale-boosting glass can be easily met.

It was some years ago when I spent an entire day with my son Matthew, painstakingly following Anthony Bourdain’s alpha-male take on a recipe for Coq au Vin from Les Halles Cookbook (2004), a book based on his Brasserie Les Halles in New York. We followed it to the letter, shopping, rooster culling, tentative eviscerating, mise en place, assembly and intermittent cooking which kept us both focused on turning something tough and unattractive (strung with unpalatable connective tissue) into something truly remarkable over the course of a day. The sort of endeavour I imagine Donald Trump’s hairdresser faces on a regular basis. But at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it is clear that wine bestows more than one colour and chickens bestow more than one sex. Sensitive alternatives exist that may have escaped Bourdain in his laudable drive to bring cuisine paysanne to the robust GoodFellas’ ambience of his former New York brasserie.

Once part of the canteen of invading Roman armies, Coq au Vin, gained its rural foothold in the Burgundy region of France (Bourgogne) and has long-established recipes that entreat you to employ only local wine in its assembly. In almost all cases this will be a Red Burgundy, made exclusively from the capricious Pinot Noir grape.

But if you are going for the Burgundian style, a word to the wise. With such a fickle crop to control, most top-end Burgundy reds (Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-St-Georges, etc) cost almost as much as First Division strikers, so please do not countenance their inclusion in your simmering pot. Rustic and inexpensive reds from Languedoc in the south of the country are a much more prudent choice for the reductive cooking the dish will require. Keep expensive Burgundies to quaff respectfully alongside the meal – if the approval of a second mortgage has been successful of course.

But if you drift eastwards from Burgundy towards the Vosges mountains and the medieval city of Strasbourg, you will come across the delicious but somewhat obscure wines of Alsace. Here single varieties are almost exclusively white: Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Tokay-Pinot Gris, and Sylvaner. Wines that are by nature limpid, steely and supple yet gifted with extraordinary elegance and finesse. As you may expect in this fiercely independent region, when Coq au Vin is on the menu (which it frequently is), recipes patriotically opt for exclusively local wines. In this case it’s delicious white varietals all day long.

So, when a nearby neighbour, Alison, a confirmed Francophile and an enthusiastic smallholder, presented me with a heartfelt recommendation and what may well turn out to be my cook book of the year (falling for this book was both quick and easy), I was instantly on-side when an early scan brought me to this delightful recipe for Coq au Riesling in the chapter on Alsace.

The book’s title by the way is When French Women Cook, and was originally published nearly forty-five years ago. Its French-born, American domiciled author is Madeleine Kamman. Part memoir, part recipe book, part family archive, one by one we are introduced to eight remarkable women scattered across what was once a predominately rural France. Some were chefs, some were housewives, some were distant family members. One thing in common, they all cooked with a keen eye on thrift and tradition, and, in turn, they all profoundly influenced the cooking of Kamman herself.

Hooked after only a few paragraphs of its introductory text, I repeat Kamman’s solitary appeal – “Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity, but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in the house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience. Where are you?”

As certainties and expectations go, this was as gripping as any culinary page-turner was likely to get for me. Her tales (and recipes) are not so much reliant on distant observation, but on her direct experience of a rural past already ebbing away by the time she came to write the book.

And as the brief introduction draws to a close, she adds; “Nowhere but in the folds of my memory and, in the pages that follow, I shall woo you and recreate you, bring back to life your women so that you know, dear readers, that there was once a civilisation that was human, tender, enjoyable and lovable.”

 And of all those women, clearly human and tender, we find Eugénie.

Eugénie was Kamman’s maternal grand-mère, and the 19th century recipe originated in her birthplace in Alsace. This version of Coq au Riesling, determinedly born of her region and passed down through generations of frugal cooks, has subsequently claimed extended residency in my own kitchen.

So, if one opts to replace the cock with a hen (a convenient alternative for most shoppers, especially those that aren’t beset by their own disruptive roosters destined for immortality in a Dutch oven) we begin to build a dish that clings to all the culinary hallmarks of its better-known Burgundian neighbour, but now with a suitably adjusted title and a few more delicate ingredients.

Sometimes it’s vin blanc not vin rouge, sometimes it’s poulet not coq, but aside from troublesome translation issues of my own making, this is by far the best version of Coq au Vin I have come across.

Coq au Riesling from When French Women Cook (1976)

(If the complex sections on quenelles fill you with dread, simply ignore the quenelle-making instructions and use all the breast meat alongside remaining pieces in the casserole.KR.)

2 x 1.5 kilo chickens

2 onions sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1 tbsp chopped parsley stems

¼ tsp dried thyme

½ crumbled bay leaf

2 bottles of Alsace Riesling

1 egg

500 ml double cream

Salt and pepper

Pinch of nutmeg

1 tbsp fine herbs

1 litre chicken stock (to poach the quenelles)

250 g mushrooms, sliced

125 g bacon lardons

Butter, unsalted

1½ litres homemade stock

1 tbsp cornflour

2 egg yolks

Lemon juice

Chopped parsley leaves

Day One:

Separate the chickens into 4 drumsticks, 4 thighs and 4 breast pieces.

Hold back the breast meat from 1 chicken. Bone and reserve the breast meat from this 1 chicken to make the quenelles.

Put the other chicken pieces in a large baking dish, sprinkle with sliced onions, carrot, parsley stems, thyme and crushed bay leaf.

Pour the Riesling over the meat and marinate overnight.

While the chicken marinates, prepare the quenelle forcemeat

Place the egg in a blender, dice the chicken breasts very small and blend together under very smooth.

Place the blended meat in a bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Day Two:

Finish the quenelle forcemeat first

Using an electric mixer whip the cream into the meat paste then add salt pepper and nutmeg, followed by the fine herbs.

Chill for 30 minutes then shape 12 small quenelles with 2 teaspoons and poach in barely simmering chicken stock.

Keep warm in the stock while you cook the chicken.

Now sauté the chicken as follows: render the diced bacon until crisp and remove to a plate.

In the same fat sauté the mushrooms with salt and pepper until they are dry and nicely browned, reserve with the bacon.

In the same pan, add some butter and gently fry the vegetables from the marinade, then discard the vegetables.

In this same fat mixture brown the pieces of chicken until they are very crisp and brown on all sides, remove the breast meat to a plate.

Return the bacon and mushrooms to the pan and add ½ the marinade salt and pepper and allow to cook for 15 minutes.

Add the remainder of the marinade and put the white meat back on top of the dark meat and cook for a further 10 minutes.

The chicken should now be done.

Remove chicken pieces with the mushroom and bacon to a casserole/dutch oven and keep warm.

Add 2 cups of stock to the original pan and reduce by about half.

Mix half the cream with the cornflour and whisk the mixture into the cooking liquid.

Now blend the egg yolks with the remaining cream and add this to the simmering cooking liquid.

Give the entire contents a few more minutes simmering.

Remove from the heat, correct seasoning and add a dash of lemon juice, if needed.

If you’ve gone with the quenelles, now is the time to pop them into the casserole/dutch oven containing the meat and then strain the sauce over the meat.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve hot. Asparagus during the season in Alsace is often added.

Wine Thoughts

In my experience, some of the greatest wines in the world are built from the Riesling grape. Their reputation was once hobbled by student tales of Lutomer Riesling from the former Yugoslavia. A cheap, vapid wine you took to a party and then promptly tried to drink someone else’s donation instead.

Apart from Germany’s Rieslings, Alsace today offers up white wines of extraordinary finesse, often with unctuous hints of fruit, orchard flowers and honey. They have an heroic ability to age, almost longer than any other white wine. This, coupled with a refreshing mineral depth and a steely backbone make for wines that work as aperitif, main course support or simply to bastion a contemplative moment. On their own they can, temporarily, waft you to paradise.