Merci Henri IV*.
You started a culinary tradition that outlasts event he most political promises when you declared in the late 1500’s-
Si Dieu me prête vie, je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon royaume qui n’ait les moyens d’avoir le dimanche une poule dans son pot!
If God spares me, I will ensure that there is no working man in my kingdom who does not have the means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday!
In Gascony, a Poule-au-Pot- or a Chicken-in-a-Pot has the mythic attributes that many cultures attribute to chicken soup- heart warming, restorative & familial. Plus it sports the royal seal of approval from the most mythic king of France- Good King Henry or le Vert Galant. Rather than sporting an ill pallor or being the envious sort, the Vert here refers to the vigorous, sharp or spicy adjective characteristics of being green– as in a sauce verte.**
Here at Camont, we have our own pecking order of royalty. Our Black Gascon rooster, Henri IV, shares more than a name with his royal predecessor. he shares the heroic and amorous reputation of being a true lady’s man. Henri of Navarre has the enviable reputation of being the Royal Lady’s Man with a hundred ladies-in-waiting at his beck and call, referred to as Catherine de Medici’s Escadron Volant or her famous flying squadron. Henri of Camont has his own ladies in waiting, laying at his beck and coco-ri-co or dashing about the le Parc de Basse-Cour or our Barnyard Park.
So when it came time ‘cull the flock’ and ‘harvest some meat’ , in other words remove a non-productive hen who had stopped laying (taking room & board away from the rest of the working girls), I turned to Henri IV of Navarre’s words and prepared a simple version of a traditional French Sunday dinner- la Poule-au-Pot.
First we killed the hen…
Now before I segue into a rant about a lot of ‘amateur’ urban farm killing taking place in back lots, or self-taught so-called-expert butchery (in the bad sense of the word) on small farms for enthusiastic but unwitting restaurants, let me make a positive appeal for working with the real experts. Experts are those men and women who have worked all their lives raising our food. They are trained in agricultural schools, on family farms, and as apprentices to others previous generations of experts.
Marie-Rose Blancuzzi, my go-to-neighbor and friend came by for a hands-on demonstration. Marie-Rose is a French housewife. She is also an expert chicken killer. Every year since she married the dashing Italian Franck Blancuzzi, nearly 50 years ago, she has raised, slaughtered and cooked hundreds of substantial farm chickens. I have killed a handful of chickens and ducks, fish, pigs over these Gascon years. But I like learning hand-to-hand, and I wanted Marie-Rose to show me some trucs or tricks. Mostly what she showed me was how simple and easy to make it while being sweet and gentle with the good hen who had laid 2 years worth of eggs- somewhere around eggs or so.
So we took the hen from the cage where I had rested her overnight with a sister hen away from the others, (in the end we didn’t kill the second the hen; she got a timely reprieve because she laid an egg in the cage). Marie-Rose cradled her under her arm like a furry black basketball, while Erika grabbed a knife, a pot of hot water and her camera.
I held the hen by her feet and wings while M-R held her head and beak closed. She then extended her neck, sliced the thin sharp knife just under the earlobe and through the main arteries. Holding the head over a pan in which to collect the blood, Marie-Rose encouraged the hen, “Va, va…” I held the body as her life left and the muscles relaxed, her comb and earlobes pale.
Now to pluck. A quick dunk of the feet first allowed us to peel off the tough outer skin of the feet. I would use the feet in the soup.
Then a few up and down dunks into the hot not boiling water ( approx. 140’F) before the two of us starting at the wings, began to pluck the soft feathers.
Within a few minutes, we were done and the feathers and warm water went into the compost pile. a Perfect way to jump start the pile. The hefty warm carcass sported plump breasts, meaty legs and well-developed bone structure. Back in the kitchen, M-R showed me a neat trick to eviscerate the carcass much like cleaning a foie gras duck.
She removed the mostly empty tripe (not feeding her the night before or early morning made for a cleaner removal of the intestines), the windpipe, crop, gizzard, heart and a surprisingly golden fatted liver. The excess amounts of fat in her cavity attest to how well-fed Camont’s free-range birds are and the liver, like a mini-foie gras was a tasty treat for cooks and helpers alike. We split the chicken in two, each of us taking a half of the hefty nearly 3 kilo bird. I’m not sure how Marie-Rose cooked her half yet, But I chose to make a very local, very Gascon, very easy version of Henri IV’s famous poule-au-pot.
Cooking the laying hen for much longer than a commercially raised fryer, I used carrots, onions, thyme, bay, garlic, salt & pepper for the base as it stewed away for over two hours. The broth it made was/is heavenly and we ate the chicken, soup and all with some cardoon slices and made an eggy golden potato puree to serve as a sort of rough dumpling.
Happy I am to have a chicken every week in my pot. It doesn’t have to be Sunday. It doesn’t have to be a economic promise. But it does have to taste good! Merci Henri.
All fotos here by the Gascon Kitchen’s 2010 Photographer in Residence
*for more about Henri IV start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_IV_of_France
**for your “French-word-a-day”