Think of a chicken. I bet you’re imagining a large, plump bird with yellow skin and pale flesh. I grew up eating this kind of chicken and, like most of you, thought it was normal — that large and plump were good qualities.
Then, 10 years ago, as an editor for Saveur, I came across a recipe for coq au vin by Paul Bocuse, the great chef often credited with inventing modern French cuisine — and everything I knew about chicken changed. Coq au vin (literally "rooster with wine") is the fate of many an aged rooster in France, those whose tough muscles require long marinating in red wine followed by a long braise in more red wine. Add in mushrooms, carrots, pearl onions, bay leaf, garlic, butter, and thyme, and you’ve got a deeply rich and satisfying dish.
I’d had coq au vin before, but only made from the birds I found at the grocery store. In his recipe, Bocuse stressed that the tougher the rooster, the better. Wait a minute, I said to myself. Tough chicken is good? Bocuse goes on to say that the coq au vin roosters of today (he published this recipe in the 1990s) are less muscular, and thus require shorter cooking times. What? Shorter cooking times are a bad thing? What was this French guy talking about? Was there really a difference between the birds of today and the birds of yore?
Five years later, I actually got to taste the sort of complex, tough, muscular bird that Bocuse was talking about — a very old heritage hen raised by an even older lady in Southwest France. The bird’s complex flavors and “tough” textures were revealed through several days of marinating and slow braising. And, the results were transformative.
I could taste the soil the bird had lived on and the grass fields she had roamed. She possessed a tremendous combination of highly developed fat and muscle. Each bite of meat bit back ever so gently in all the right ways. This was “real chicken,” I declared. I have been in search of real chicken ever since.
Remarkably, it’s quite difficult to find in an American grocery store. The chicken we buy — no matter if it’s conventional, organic or “cage-free” (which hardly means anything) — may be big, plump, and tender, but it’s largely flavorless and boring. It’s also often pumped with antibiotics, or, in some cases, a “tenderizing” solution of salt and water.
So, how’d the state of chicken get so bad? Blame it on industrialization. When a bird, or for that matter, any creature that we raise for meat, moves around a lot during its lifetime; when it’s allowed to eat a diet not just of grain but bugs, vegetables or other rich sources of minerals and protein; when it’s allowed to live longer than a month or two, the meat tastes, well, like meat should. Why? Because it has developed grand layers of intramuscular and inter-muscular fat, which provide rich, complex flavor. If the bird’s muscles have been allowed to develop naturally, over a longer period of time, those muscles won’t retain as much moisture. As a result, flavors become more concentrated.
As for its texture, the meat, in its raw state, will be quite tough. But, this isn't a bad thing! If you cook a tough cut of meat right — slow and low, with the aid of salt and a marinade — its textures will delight. If you cook it just right, you get Paul Bocuse’s coq au vin. And, when you bite into that coq au vin, you’ll have the curious sense that you’re eating, finally, SOMETHING, versus nothing. This is the difference between a “real chicken” and all the others.
So what are “real” chickens?
“Real" chickens are typically heritage breeds — with names like Red Rock, or Delaware, Orpington, or Wyandottes — who have not been overbred. These birds can live for years, and still taste good.
Their factory-farmed brethren, on the other hand, usually a variety called Cornish-Cross, are stacked beak to beak, unable to move. They are bred so that their muscles plump up fast, and their bones stay soft. These chickens, natural omnivores, are fed only grain and water. And, they are typically slaughtered at the ripe young age of six weeks, which is a good thing, because if this particular crossbreed is allowed to live longer, it won’t be able to stand up (its undeveloped leg muscles and bones can’t take the weight of its overdeveloped breasts) or, even worse, it will suffer from cardiac arrest or other organ failure.
These are not hearty birds meant for the long haul. And, they are not birds that are raised for interesting flavor or texture. These, my friends, are boring birds, save for their remarkable Frankenstein build. By the way, the majority of those organic, “free-range” ones you’re buying from boutique grocery stores, they’re just about the same.
Ethical concerns aside, there’s a more immediate reason to care: taste. As consumers, if we demand complex, rich flavor and texture from the food we eat, we are actually, inadvertently demanding the system by which that food is raised to change for the better.
So where do you get a “real chicken?” If you live in an area that allows you to raise them, you can get it from your own backyard, in which case I’d highly suggest joining the Backyard Chickens forum. Of course, you’d also need to learn how to harvest those birds.
If that’s not your style, visit your local farmers' market and start asking the chicken farmers questions. What breed do you raise? Will you sell me older birds? What do they eat? How much do they move around? [Ed note: This is also the plot of a Portlandia sketch, but still great advice.] Or, try visiting Localharvest.org where you can search for truly free-range, organic, heritage chicken farmers by location. Lastly, visit the growing number of small, ethical butcher shops that are popping up around the country, which go to great lengths to source “real meat.” A good place to look for these is on the Butcher’s Guild website. (It's called the "Meat Map." Yes, really.)
Once you get your hands on a “real chicken,” do as Bocuse tells you to. Buy yourself a couple of bottles of good Burgundy, or any other red wine you deem worthy. Set cutlery for eight. And, start cooking.
Just don’t blame us if you never look at grocery store chicken the same way again.
Coq Au Vin
Adapted and translated from French from Paul Bocuse's classic recipe.
A cock, about 6 pounds, drained and cut into 10 pieces
2 sprigs thyme
1/2 bay leaf
2 liters of red wine from Burgundy
3 cloves garlic
3 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 lb bacon
1/2 lbs Parisian mushrooms
1/4 lb pearl onions, parboiled, skins removed
10 sprigs of parsley
1 ounce butter
1. Begin this recipe the day before. (You need one day for the marinating, and one for cooking.)
2. Put the chicken in a bowl, along with onions and carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices. Add the thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Pour the wine over the meat and cover the bowl. Refrigerate overnight.
3. The next day, drain and dry the chicken and vegetables. Strain the marinade and reserve. Heat oil in large skillet, and brown the chicken in batches.
4. Put chicken in a large casserole, and add the vegetables and crushed garlic cloves. Pour the marinade on top. Stir everything together and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Cover, and simmer over very low heat 1 to 2 hours depending on the age of the rooster.
5. For the garnish, peel the onions and mushrooms. Cut the bacon into strips and brown in butter with onions and mushrooms in a skillet, for about 8 minutes. When the chicken is ready, add the contents of the skillet to the casserole. Taste and adjust seasonings and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Invite over seven friends, set the table, and get ready to eat like never before.
Camas Davis, a food writer turned butcher, is interested in one thing: bringing the lost art of home butchery back to American kitchens. Now, as the founder and owner of Portland Meat Collective and the Meat Collective Alliance, she's spearheading a dynamic, local, sustainable approach to buying and eating meat straight to the people. Pretty bad-ass, if you ask us.