This post is part of the Cook the Books blog event running until November 8, 2009. Read Peter Mayles' French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew and cook something inspired by the book. Post your inspiration on your blog and link to Cook the Books.)
What with the French being so close to Greece (both countries class themselves as Mediterranean, since they share the sea of the same name), I have always felt Greece has more in common with them than most people are prepared to believe. For a start, they both love smoking and find it frigging hard to obey the recently introduced smoking bans in their countries. Then they both love their long extended lunches and siestas. They both also take pride in their institutions, which may sound a little old-fashioned in some ways, as if they have not moved on with the times, but hey, that's the Greeks (or the French) for you. ANd only recently, we found out about how politically nepotistic they can be, when Mr Sarkozy's son wanted to become president of Paris' CBD (depsite not having finished his degree and being only frigging 23 years old).
The French invented the restaurant, and it seems that they always loved dining out, which must have something to do with the development of their 'haute cuisine'. Peter Mayle describes his adventures in France as he travelled to various foodie (to use the modern word) celebrations. Such events are celebrated all around the world by cultures that are strongly linked to their food. Greece is no stranger to such occasions. I have participated in (or seen advertised) the Celebration of the Cherry, the Olive, the Sardine, the Kalitsouni, The Wine, and the Tsikoudia (the Cretan fiery spirit), to name a few.
Frogs' legs being out of the question (we can't buy them here) while snails are a bit deja vue for a Cretan cook like myself, I decided to make a dish that Peter Mayle described in his book when he went to Bourg-en-Bresse for the annual celebration (or more likely commemoration) of Les Glorieuses, in the elite chicken zone 80 kilometres north of Lyon, 'the greatest chicken show on earth'. Despite the many food events that take place in Crete regularly, I don't think I've ever heard of one of those being organised here.)
My inspiration to choose chicken as the main ingredient of my French dish comes from a recent discussion that developed from one of my Flickr photo posts. As we find out from Peter, not all chickens are the same, and this certainly applies in Crete too; different kinds of chicken are raised for different purposes. You don't just pick up the first chook you see in the supermarket deep freeze or butcher's counter: you buy chicken according to the dish you want to cook with it.
Choosing high quality ingredients and simple cooking styles assures success. The chicken I chose was lined with blobs of fat which I removed for this dish - I put all the fat into a plastic bag and stored it in the freezer to be used for stock making (it makes a good pilafi).
Peter provides a detailed account of a chicken and mushroom dish that he enjoyed just before the chicken show. I used this description for my Cook the Books creation. The cream and mushrooms give that rich taste often associated with French cuisine.
"First into the pan goes a generous knob of butter, followed by the chicken breasts and legs, a large onion cut into quarters, a dozen or so sliced champignons de Paris - those small, tightly capped white mushrooms - a couple of cloves of garlic en chemise, crushed but not peeled, and a bouquet garni of herbs. When the colour of the chicken has turned to deep gold, a large glass of white wine is poured into the pan, and allowed to reduce before half a litre of creme fraiche is added. The bird is cooked for thirty minutes, the sauce is strained through a fine sieve, the dish is seasoned to taste, and there you have it."
Et voila, it's as simple as that; or so it seems, if you have the appropriate ingredients at hand. My only problem is that most ingredients from foreign cuisine are not often easily available in my small Greek island town; I replaced them with their closest Cretan counterparts, and found that the dish could still be kept genuinely French. When your ingredients are of the highest quality, then French cooking need not be a difficult task, even outside France.
The chicken played a very important role in making this dish. I chose a fresh fatty chicken which would cook at the same rate of time it took to cook the mushrooms. Very lean chicken (the kind we often buy frozen) would begin to disintegrate before the mushrooms were ready, while an "old" hen (or rooster) would require more cooking time because it is tough. out olive oil in Crete is akin to anathema, which is why I chose to add some and reduce the amount of butter. Creme fraiche isn't available in Crete (neither is sour cream), so I mixed some double cream with Greek strained yoghurt, to give the creamy slightly sour taste that creme fraiche contains. My bouquet garni was made with one sprig of all the herbs I could find in my kitchen: mint, parsley, fennel, bay leaf, and the top of a leek. Finally, I chose the most tightly capped mushrooms that I could find; since they were small, I decided to leave them whole.
Exact quantities are always a problem when cooking in this very vague manner. Peter did give approximate amounts, but the truth is that being able to guess correctly without being provided exact quantities takes a bit of experience. I think I managed it very nicely. The only part where I swayed from the original recipe was the moment I chose to strain the sauce. Peter tells us that the sauce must be strained after the addition of the creme fraiche, but I chose to do this just before I added the cream, mainly out of the fear of the unknown: I've never cooked meat with cream or yoghurt before, and I wasn't sure how the cream would turn out. As it was, I realised I could have done this after the dish was cooked with the cream; I don't think this affected the taste of the final product.
So, bon appetit, everyone. I hope you enjoyed this foray into French cuisine as much as I did. The woody mushroom smell aromatised my kitchen in that magic way that country cooking always manages to do when high quality ingredients are fresh and cooking styles are simple; I felt as if I was in the middle of a forest!
If exact quantities are important to you, this BBC recipe comes very, VERY close to the recipe that Peter describes in his book.
Thanks to Joy in Philadelphia who managed to secure a copy of the book for me.
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