There is chicken, and there is chicken. The French chicken, from Bresse, is the finest in the world. It is nurtured and cosseted like no other living creature (save, perhaps, the Japanese kobe cattle which are fed beer and given a daily massage). Naturally, there are other fine farmyard-reared birds, in Britain, as well as in France and elsewhere. And the better the bird, the better the dish cooked.
Well, up to a point.
A good cook can produce a good dish from any old scrawnbag of a chook. A poor cook will produce a poor dish. I firmly believe this to be true. Take a boiling fowl, for instance; one of the toughest old birds. Poached gently for a few hours in water, with root vegetables, herbs and a little wine, this classic French bourgeois dish is a delight. Poule au pot (hen in a pot) is its name, and it can be eaten just as it is; you could even anglicise it with a few dumplings, if you wished, flavoured with tarragon perhaps – chicken’s favourite herb.
Roasting a chicken is a joy for me; and if I am pressed to name my favourite food, then roast chicken it must be.
I would think that the nicest one I ever tasted was at Chez L’Ami Louis in Paris. The late Monsieur Magnin used chickens from Les Landes – I think from his own farm but I am not sure – and roasted them to a divine juiciness and crispness. Today they are still as good as the first I ate.
At Chez L’Ami Louis, the roast chickens do have the advantage of being cooked in a wood-fired oven, their pedigree is fine and so much butter is used. The resultant chicken is cooked almost to a state of chewiness – particularly at its extremities; the parson’s nose, wing tips, and undercarriage where those secret “oysters” lie.
Anyway, the chicken at Ami Louis arrives at your table sizzling hot in its well-worn Le Creuset, surrounded by its juices and carved there and then. The only thing served with this is a plate piled high with pommes frites of the thinnest dimensions.
Roasting and poaching (you don’t have to use an old boiler for poaching; a good tender chicken is delicious too) are my favourite ways of cooking chicken. Grilled small joints or spatchcocked chickens (split in half and flattened) are delightful alternatives, particularly when cooked on a barbecue, having previously been marinated with herbs, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice or what you will. If it is not outdoor weather, then it is worth investing in one of those cast-iron ribbed grills; without one it just isn’t possible to achieve the searing heat that crisps and scorches the skin or flesh and gives it its distinctive taste and, of course, fabulous smell.
good butter 110g, at room temperature
free-range chicken 1.8 kg
salt and pepper
thyme or tarragon or a mixture of the two several sprigs
garlic 1 clove, peeled and crushed
Preheat the oven to 210C fan/gas mark 8. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird. Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Season liberally with salt and pepper and squeeze over the juice of the lemon. Put the herbs and garlic inside the cavity, together with the squeezed out lemon halves – this will add a fragrant lemony flavour to the finished dish.
Roast the chicken in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Baste, then turn the oven temperature down to 170C fan/gas mark 5 and roast for a further 30–45 minutes with further occasional basting. The bird should be golden brown all over with a crisp skin and have buttery, lemony juices of a nut-brown colour in the bottom of the tin.
Turn off the oven, leaving the door ajar, and leave the chicken to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving. This enables the flesh to relax gently, retaining the juices in the meat and ensuring easy, trouble-free carving and a moist bird.
Carve the bird to suit yourself; I like to do it in the roasting tin. I see no point in making a gravy in that old-fashioned English way with the roasting fat, flour and vegetable cooking water. With this roasting method, what you end up with in the tin is an amalgamation of butter, lemon juice and chicken juices. That’s all. It is a perfect homogenisation of fats and liquids. All it needs is a light whisk or a stir, and you have the most wonderful “gravy” imaginable. If you wish to add extra flavour, you can scoop the garlic and herbs out of the chicken cavity, stir them into the gravy and heat through; strain before serving.
Another idea, popular with the Italians, is sometimes known as “wet roasting”. Pour some white wine or a little chicken stock, or both, or even just water around the bottom of the tin at the beginning of cooking. This will produce more of a sauce and can be enriched further to produce altogether different results. For example, you can add chopped tomatoes, diced bacon, cream, endless different herbs, mushrooms, spring vegetables, spices – particularly saffron and ginger – or anything else that you fancy. For me, the simple roast bird is the best, but it is useful to know how much further you can go when roasting a chicken.