"It's not much but it's ours"

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I don’t think it is too big a leap to compare good cooking to good writing. There is the same need for preparation, the same need to find the right blend of ingredients and the same need to make sure that none of those ingredients dominates to the detriment of the whole. All being well, you finish with an end result which is well balanced and, while not pleasing everyone, appeals to a great many.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been working my way through a proof copy of Jay Rayner’s new novel, THE OYSTER HOUSE SIEGE, a quite complex thriller with an interesting denouement set in the kitchen of an old school restaurant c1981.

Alongside a smattering of violence (would that some restaurant critics suffer the same fate as their fictional colleague, Grey Thomas ) and much attention to well observed period detail, the main story features the relationship of three characters, Nathan, the armed robber, Bobby, the female chef and Willy, the police negotiator and the connection they find through the preparation of classic dishes.

As I am sure was the intention, reading affectionate descriptions of the making of dishes you have not seen on a menu for years makes you hungry to taste them and eager to cook them.

Last week, while in Berlin, I craved a schnitzel such as one mentioned early on in the book and this week, as I read on, I found myself engaged by a description of a “proper” Coq Au Vin, cockscomb and all. Damn, I wanted one and I was damn well going to have one.

So, this weekend, despite the fact I was full of cold, saw me wandering around the market in search of “an old boiler” None to be found, unfortunately and I did not have time to pop up to Ridley Rd where I know they have them aplenty before I had to catch a train down to Three Bridges where my ever patient girlfriend, Dawn was going to pick me up. So, I settled on a large bird from Furness, by far the best chickens in Borough Market.

After a few more stops to pick up the other necessary bits & bobs, I headed off down South and soon found myself in Dawn’s kitchen, dosed up on Dayquil, fortifying glass of white Burgundy in hand and with my mis very much en place.

There is a reason so many of these dishes have dropped from sight. It is not because they don’t taste good. Quite the opposite, last week’s schnitzel was the stuff of dreams. It is because they require effort and patience which are commodities in short supply these days both in cooking and in writing (to go back to my original comparison) Coq Au Vin is no different. The finished dish should, if prepared properly, have layers of flavour that comes from the stage by stage construction of the dish.

I began by frying off some chunks of pancetta until they had surrendered lots of fatty goodness and taken on a deep dark hue before being scooped out to drain. I then browned pieces of the chicken in the fat until they were the golden colour of honey before removing them too. Dawn had obligingly slaved over a chopping board to prepare the mire poix of celery, onions and carrots which I sweated with some thin slices of garlic until the onions began to soften.

I had made a decent amount of stock out of the carcass and once I had replaced the chicken and pancetta in the pan, I added enough of this to half cover the bird before pouring in a whole bottle of inky Gamay and a good glug of Cognac to make up the rest if the liquid to which I added the further flavour of thyme and fresh bay leaves.

As the pot bubbled and gurgled rather pleasingly on the hob, Dawn was nose down on the same chopping board obligingly preparing some button mushrooms and shallots ( those proper,small round onions proving devilishly hard to find ) which I then sauted in a bit of butter until golden brown.

After a couple of hours the chicken was cooked but still on the bone and I removed it from the pot to the oven to keep warm while I turned up the heat and let the juices bubble away more energetically until reduced to the right consistency to which I then whisked in a good knob of butter to add a sheen. Finally, I returned the chicken and added the mushrooms and onions to warm through before ladling the end result into a shallow serving bowl.

Quite a task, particularly for Dawn who shouldered all the dirty work. But, with a large glass of St Emilion and a chunk of granary bread, it was well worth it.

Definitely worth the effort, as indeed is reading THE OYSTER HOUSE SIEGE from which the inspiration was drawn.

Not sure I am up to the Rum Baba’s on pp143 though.
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Blogger Gavin said...

Strangely there were boiler chickens available in Selfridge's Food Hall yesterday for a couple of quid, along with Bresse birds at 25 notes.

When is Jay's book out?

Monday, February 05, 2007 7:14:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Copies will be available from early March, though the official publication date is March 20


Monday, February 05, 2007 8:36:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coq au Vin is one of my favourite things to make. Try coating the jointed chicken in seasoned flour before browning in the fat - the go all crispy and lovely.

Monday, February 05, 2007 10:43:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

I did ponder on this but could find no mention in the works of the blessed Luard or even in the more recent interpretations of Nigel Slater, so I decided against it.


Monday, February 05, 2007 11:13:00 am  
Blogger Lan said...

Six years on, and the spaghetti has been replaced with oysters...?

Monday, February 05, 2007 2:28:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is one of the pleasures of writing novels that you get to improve on real life. So yes, oysters rather than spaghetti.


Monday, February 05, 2007 3:04:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a burgundian dish with bordeaux?
schoolboy error !
big fan of the retro cooking though, it never went out of fashion in my kitchen, and my consolation for being dragged to berlin for a stag do later in the year will be a plate of veally good schnitzel (sorry could't resist)

Monday, February 05, 2007 4:18:00 pm  
Blogger Lan said...

OMG! I didn't expect a reply to my flippant remark from the author himself!

It's your prerogative as author, of course.

I'll look forward to reading it; I love novels with food.

And I gave away my extreme age by disclosing that I remember the original event...

Monday, February 05, 2007 7:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you tried Nigel Slater's Coq au Reisling? Another brilliant dish. Very rich though!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007 9:39:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

"Have you tried Nigel Slater's Coq au Reisling?"

There has got to be a joke in there somehwere!


Tuesday, February 06, 2007 10:37:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...


You really didn't think I would allow that comment did you? However accurate


Tuesday, February 06, 2007 2:15:00 pm  
Blogger Lan said...


Tuesday, February 06, 2007 6:07:00 pm  
Blogger Brtgn said...

What about marinading the chicken in the wine, garni, and vegetables beforehand? I personally think it makes a big difference.

It's also kind of nice to toss in some orange zest and parsley seconds before serving- one last layer of flavor to enjoy.



Wednesday, March 04, 2009 4:51:00 pm  

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