When I was growing up in California in the 1950s I’d hear about something called “cocoa van.” I’d like to say that I was curious about this “cocoa van,” but I wasn’t. I heard at some point that it was a chicken dish, but since I didn’t care much for chicken—my mother always overcooked it—why would I care about “cocoa van?”
By the time I was a teenager, I became aware that if someone needed a symbol of French elegance in English-language pop culture, coq au vin was the symbol they’d choose. In the 1973 movie A Touch of Class starring George Segal and Glenda Jackson, coq au vin is mentioned at least three times.1 The dish also gets a mention in the 1989 movie The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, although with a bit of color thrown in:
- (Albert) The coq au vin is good.
- (Man) Cock a what?
- (Albert) Chicken cooked in wine, you mule. Bess Riddle lived on coq au vin.
- (Man) More of the coq than the vin.2
Coq au vin also takes on a sexual connotation in this British joke:
- (Essex man in restaurant) D’yer fancy coq au vin?
- (Essex girl) No ta! I fink ‘having sex in the back of a transit is really tacky!3
And also in the British television comedy Cissie and Ada:
- (Cissie) Well I was wondering if I could use your cooker to finish off this dish I’m making for Leonard’s tea. Coq au vin.
- (Ada) What?
- (Cissie) Have you ever tried coq au vin?
- (Ada) No but I once let an Italian put his hand up my jumper on the back seat of his Fiat.4
But most references to coq au vin do are without a double entendre. In fiction it seems to remain just a chicken preparation.
“How about coq au vin tonight?” he asked her.
“What is coq au vin?”
“Chicken and vegetables cooked in red wine.”
“It sounds all right,” She said listlessly.5
“Excuse me for interrupting, Miss Rosie, but Mrs. Moser wants to know if coq au vin will suit you tonight for she needs to begin work on dinner as soon as possible.”6
Perhaps I will make my tentmates a lovely little French dish, say a delightful Coq au Vin…Harry's favorite repast.7
“What’s for dinner?” asked Gerrat.
“Coq au vin.”
“Straight from the replicator?” I asked.
“No. the uncooked bird was, but it’s a new recipe for Naria,” Mother replied.8
“It’s not me, silly,” she laughed, pulling gently away from his embrace and reaching into the oven for a fragrantly bubbling coq au vin. “it’s your lordship’s favorite supper.”9
One book used the dish for its title10 as did a French movie, although it was sometimes titled Poulet au vinaigre.11 (I guess the wine had turned!) Coq au vin is referred to in all types of books, not just fiction: computer books;12 health and fitness;13 language arts and disciplines;14 sports and recreation;15 medical;16 body, mind, and spirit;17 business and economics;18 travel;19 and humor.20 And of course there’re hundreds of cookbooks with recipes for, or references to, coq au vin.
When I started to search for the origin of coq au vin I thought I would find examples of the recipe in all the old classic cookbooks such as those by de laVerenne,21 Massialot,22 and Carême.23 To my surprise none of my old cookbooks had a recipe for coq au vin. Philip and Mary Hyman write about this quandary in The Oxford Companion to Food.
Although Coq au vin is well known and was featured in numerous menus in the third quarter of the 20th century, it does not have a long history. The flesh of a cock has always been regarded as somewhat tough and indigestible, and with few exceptions cooks of earlier centuries saw no merit in cocks except as a source of cockscombs (much in demand as a garnish) and sometimes for making a bouillon. One of the very first recipes for Coq au vin, that of Brisson published in Richardin’s L’Art du bien manger [a periodical] (1913), was presented as a real ‘discovery’, the author having been surprised to find the dish in Puy-de-Dôme, and surprised by how good it was. The ingredients in this case were the cock, good wine of Auvergne, bacon, onion, garlic, and mushrooms. Wine from Burgundy has since become the one commonly used, and indeed many recipes just say ‘red wine’.
The upsurge of interest in regional cuisines has recently brought to light other similar traditions for preparing Coq au vin. In Franche-Comté the bird is simmered in vin jaune; and in Alsace in Riesling. ln both these regions morels and cream are gladly added if available. Indeed, knowledgeable food experts no longer speak of Coq au vin in the singular but of coqs au vin in the plural, while acknowledging that these dishes were doubtless simmering away for long years before the first recipes were published and before the gastronomes ‘discovered’ the virtues of simple country fare.24
Writing in 1928, and possibly as early as 1907, Ali-Bab (Henri Babinski) claims:
This dish goes back to the sixteenth century. It was known at that time under the clarion-like name of coq au vin, and it was prepared vary rapidly, in the presence of numerous guests, in front of a huge crackling wood fire, in the old “Hostelleries” of France. But, since it can perfectly well be prepared with a young hen, as well as with a young rooster, and since, in the long run, it is a ragoût, it would be preferable to call it “ragoût de poulet au vin” (chicken stew with wine).25
Although not as strongly as Ali-Bab, Theodora Fitzgibbon also alludes to an earlier history for coq au vin in the recipe she provides from a restaurant in Paris:
La Mère Catherine at the top of Montmartre has been a famous inn since 1793 when it was a meeting place for huntsmen (‘Le Clairon des Chasseurs’), and is very little changed today.... Chicken has always been a specialty of the house.26
Of the fifty or so recipes I looked at only a couple called for a rooster; most didn’t even call for a large or old chicken. A chicken of one to two kilos was usually the specified size. As to the wine being used, earlier recipes tended to specify a white wine, while more modern recipes favored red. The wine was often local to the source of the recipe and sometimes affected the dish’s name.
The ‘Coq au vin’ has various designations, these depending on the red wine used. Examples are:
Jurassiene: when an Arbois rosé is employed;
Quercynoise: a Cahors wine;
Nuitonne: a Côte de Nuits (ignited with Burgundy ‘marc’);
Alsacienne: a Riesling.
In Béarn the wine used in the preparation is an Irouléguy.
In Auvergne, a Chanturgue.
In Pouilly, a white Pouilly (fumé).27
This predilection of making coq au vin a regional specialty by associating with a particular wine can be seen on many restaurant menus as well as in cookbooks. One collection of thirty menus from Paris in 1967 yields five offering coq au vin.28 Chez Allard offers coq au vins for 14 frs. Chez Garin lists le Coq au vin à la Nuitonne for 22 frs. At Chez Pauline, le coq au vin de chiroubles was offered for 9.90 frs, whereas Le Petit Marguery was less specific by offering coq au vin de beaujolais for 5.50 frs. Lastly, Chez Yvette simply lists theirs as coq au vin for 6.50 frs. Based on this meager sampling, one in six restaurants in Paris was serving coq au vin in the 1960s.
As I read recipe after recipe, I found that for the most part cookbook authors were fairly consistent with their coq au vin recipes. Bacon and vegetables, usually onions and carrots, were cooked on top of the stove until the bacon rendered some of its fat and the vegetables started to cook a bit. These were either pushed to the side or removed from the pan and the chicken, whether old or young, large or small, hen or rooster, which was cut into serving pieces, usually eight, and browned in bacon fat. Some form of high-proof spirits, cognac, armagnac, marc, or eau-de-vie, was then added and ignited. Flour was then sprinkled onto the ingredients and mixed in. Wine was added to dissolve the flour. Any reserved vegetables were added back to the pan along with some mushrooms and herbs. The mixture was then placed over a low flame and cooked, covered, until the chicken was done.
I’ve chosen two of the recipes to represent the rest that I found. The first coq au vin recipe is by Ali-Bab and is the earliest I found in my collection of over two-hundred cookbooks.29 The second coq au vin recipe is a modern one by Marie-Pierre Moine. Part of what makes this recipe thoroughly up to date is the use of chocolate to flavor the sauce.30
The popularity of coq au vin may have peaked during the last century. It seems to be appearing less and less on menus today. (The last time I remember eating it in France was 1997, and that version wouldn’t be recognized by most people as coq au vin.) Maybe in another fifty years, coq au vin will just be a historical footnote in French culinary tradition.