Doesn’t it seem that the first month of 2013 is taking a long time to get done?
Time can be a funny thing and cheat its way around your life. It’s not unusual for me to miss a day here in the wilds of Gascony. If it wasn’t for the mid-week market at Lavardac and garbage pick up on Wednesday, I am sure I would skip a Thursday at least once a month. So I’m grateful for the calender reminders on my computer everyday. This end of January is especially welcome since Spring in Gascony is impatiently right on it’s heels. But some things can’t wait. This is a time challenged tale of how my Christmas, no wait, my New Year’s capon passed a pleasant but lonely 4 weeks in the orchard all by himself while the January clock ticked on.
The Chapon Fin
Called Coco by the farmer (I suppose shortened, along with the other important bits of a rooster, from coco-ri-co, the French rooster’s cock-a-doodle-do ), he was a golden-feathered handsome boy. I picked him out at the Agen Sunday Market before the holidays and brought him home to an empty, fox-scorched empty chicken yard. Resting in a coop, I thought I’d slaughter him in just a few days for a holiday feast with friends- truffles, chestnuts, cream & armagnac! All the trimmings.
Not that week. I caught the holiday bug that was passed around and fell into a two week couch and television stupor sipping tea and eating toast. By the time the festivities had passed at everyone else’s house, I was back on my feet but with no one to feed. A rather hefty 6+ kilo bird feeds a large group and I was loath to roast the bird and try to eat it on my own. I kept putting the kill off from day to day, and then week to week. Soon enough a quiet month had passed.
So this week, in between a break in a Skype meeting with Pableaux Johnson of Blue Crab Labs in NOLA for the Cassoulet app, I grabbed the little chicken sticking knife and walked out to the orchard yard. It was either feed Coco again, or do the deed. I wasn’t really sure until I got there. I did the deed. I was feeling bad about prolonging his stay in solitude confinement, bad enough that slaughter seemed the better option. It was his raison d’être after all. He was born a rooster but died a capon.
About Capons. The old practice called chaponnage or caponization dates to the Romans and was to fatten a cockerel who had been castrated (much like we do with steers, hogs and lambs). Raised on a grain and cereal rich diet that encourages a fattened bird, meat is full flavored in part because they are much older than an average roasting chicken. Coco was 7 months when I bought him instead of the usual 14-week supermarket roasters. Capons do not produce large combs or wattles, are sturdy meat producers and quite docile. I never hear him crow either, Mrs. Wheelbarrow. Prized at Christmas, cloaked in truffles for New Year’s, or smothered in cream and mushrooms, a chapon is one of the classic celebrations of French gastronomy. There are still dozens of restaurants, bistros and brasseries called Le Chapon Fin, although they are marked by the absence of capon on today’s menus.
So, I killed Coco in the orchard, let his blood drain into the compost, and quickly dry plucked him then and there. Bacon (the big dog at Camont) was giving me little yelps of encouragement and ate way too many feathers. I was less excited. I can dispatch a chicken now without physically flinching, but I always have to steel myself to remember better this than a factory farmed animal any day. It’s good to practice one’s own preaching.
Quickly, feather covered, I went back to publishing and printing and other internaut work. I left the big bird, no longer called anything but meat, in the sink to eviscerate later as it cooled slightly. Not my favorite part. So while thinking about how I would actually cook the bird, I happily returned to twitter and facebook and saw a quick message from Marc-Frederic, the Frenchiest- English butcher I know. He clearly knows his birds as he suggested I roasted the ‘crown’ and confit the legs. Clever lad!
Duly inspired, I cleaned, gutted, and removed any excess fat, nearly a kilo! I used my duck butchery techniques to separate the carcass along the side where the front meets the back at the ribs. I removed the legs and thighs, each a hearty portion on it’s own and set them aside to salt. Then just a quick seasoning with salt and pepper all over the breast inside and out and placed into a deep cast iron pot leaving the lid off. I roasted the breast and wings on the bone in a very hot oven for 40 minutes and then turned it down low for another 40 minutes, at which point I put the lid on the pot and turned it down further. Not in a hurry, this bird could take the heat. Twenty minutes before I was ready to remove the roast from the oven, I started some braised endives with thin slices of Spanish Bellota ham. I carved the capon, placed it on top of the endive and ham. It made a delicious dinner which I shared with Marek and crew as they finished up the barnworks for the day. Another good supper from the farms of Gascony.
And all that chicken fat? Tomorrow, in between the ebb and flow of working from home, close to the wood stove, I’ll render the kilo of fat I removed from the capon’s cavity and gently poach the legs and thighs until they are tender enough for a broom straw to pierce them. I’ll pop them in a little jar , cover with fat and let them sit in the refrigerator until ready to eat. In the meantime, I’ll read Michael and Donna Ruhlman’s new ebook- Schmaltz and marry that lost use of chicken fat with my own knowledge of the fatted duck here in Gascony. Then we’ll see what fun we’ll have when the first Charcuterie students of 2013 arrive early next month. I’m already inventing new recipes based on old traditions.
So was Coco really the last rooster of Camont? I think not. (Sorry, worker bees.) Rather, I see how turning that spring brood of noisy cockerels into chapons in training might endear me to my light-sleeping visiting friends and help preserve the holiday traditions.