Chapter Twenty-Eight: When Chicken Is Not Just Chicken
We indulge in a country-specific culinary rite of passage.
By the third week of Charles and my sister’s visit, the unknowns of my village were becoming known. Those two were excellent wingmen for further forays into local life. We went back to see Cassandre and were regaled with dainty snacks and more stories of her swashbuckling youth that Charles and I did our best to translate for my sister. The men, the travels, the time she briefly worked as nude model to put her through a few years at the Beaux Arts in Paris. “Adultery is a lifestyle,” she said shrugging when describing a particularly mischievous uncle. She never disappointed.
Jean-Yves took us over to visit the garden belonging to Charlotte, a painter who owned that lovely manor house on the twist in the road winding down to my place. Passing that house with its tall slate roof (like mine) and its perfect proportions (unlike mine) was my favorite thing about coming home every time I did. It was covered in shaggy Virginia Creeper vines that were currently shiny apple green and at their fullest fan of the year, and sat just under one of the old-fashioned street lamps, so it had a kind of glamour lighting at night.
It turned out that behind the house, which Charlotte used as her atelier, there was a vast swath of green leading all the way back up a gentle slope into the cool shade of the forest. She had a bit of meadow there, and she had created several different little landscape vignettes closer to the house, including a kitchen garden with massive pyramid-shaped stakes for cucumbers that were growing almost wild that year, and a circle of fir trees whose lower trunks she cleverly stripped. Like paintbrushes dipped in green, it made them look neat and intentional, and created a kind of low key fairy grove vibe without any actual twee. Jean-Yves and Charles, both gay, both geeks, had plenty to chat about while my sister just sort of floated and pantomimed and smiled and Charlotte, whom I discovered was very shy and didn’t always mix with the rest of the maximiens, handed me cucumber after cucumber to take home. Ah, I thought, so one can sit things out here and not come in for judgment. That was an encouraging realization.
Gesturing us to look down toward the center of the village, Charlotte showed us just across her property line to her neighbor’s chicken run. There had to be hundreds of birds in there, in what I guess you could call a “free range” arrangement, if one with Manhattan-levels of population density. I had never seen that kind of operation before. Some of the female birds looked really ragged. Their feathers had been pecked off, Charlotte explained, as part of the act of chicken seduction. It sounded like a raw deal. When free-range freedom isn’t free.
The noise was considerable. The string of houses up the street from me must have blocked most of the squawking from my place, because aside from some morning crowing, I never heard much. Those birds had nothing on the church bells that went off every thirty minutes across the street from me anyway. Cassandre had told me that she and Madame, the former owner of my house, militated together to get the church to start chiming at eight in the morning instead of seven. God bless them.
Those chickens did occasionally get loose in the village, either on solo excursions or in grouplets of three or four. Sometimes they’d cruise over to my tiny front yard, foraging for whatever it is chickens eat, as Fred and Penelope maintained sentry at the windows, chirping and chattering like maniacs. They had never had such large animals breach their perimeter before and could barely compute. I became obsessed, because nothing says “you live in the countryside” like random chickens that nobody notices or cares about running wild.
They belonged to a lady called Sophie I had seen around a few times, who sold them as meat, and had an egg business going. She had short cropped coppery hair and a really athletic build with a few missing fingers that Angelique told me likely came from her other job at a factory somewhere further out.
The next time I saw her, she was passing by my place in her station wagon as I was crossing the street, so I waved her down, leaned into her passenger side window and asked for a chicken. She was warm to the point of flirtatious—I wondered if the close-cropped hair were that kind of sign—and said she’d bring one by in a couple days.
“My chickens aren’t like normal chickens,” she said with mild apprehension. “Be aware.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but figured they might be leaner and gamier, as non-factory birds tend to be. I found out pretty quickly, a few days later, when she knocked on my kitchen window around 11 am, carrying a small cooler. I opened up the window, she fished out the bird, and passed it through to me with a rakish wink. Sophie, you sly fox. I smiled back and handed over €15.
Friends, it was the weirdest looking chicken I had ever seen. First, because it wasn’t in that kind of hunched posture that you usually see when you buy a whole chicken at the market. This one was stretched all the way out lengthwise more like a rabbit, or as if it had gone into rigor mortis while finishing up a yoga class in shavasana. It was lean enough for that kind of behavior.
Charles did the manly and chopped off its feet—yes, dear reader, I own a cleaver. (We debated giving the feet to the cats and realized we actually didn’t want to see that.) The neck and legs still almost extended past my large roasting pan, which I filled with the usual carrots and parsnips and onions, stuffing another whole onion into the enormous cavity with some thyme. In it went into a cold oven. This is the only way to roast a bird, people. Set it to 220 Celsius and turn it over halfway through. That’s 420ish Fahrenheit and I’ve since taken my roasting temp down a notch. Thankfully I kept an eye on it because our lunch was ready in 45 minutes.
The point of a cold oven roast is to limit temperature shock. It keeps the meat more tender, and it also helps the skin separate better so it gives you a more uniformly crisp texture. In this case the skin was thicker than I was used to, iron-solid and split practically nowhere, like a golden space suit encasing the bird with no airway. Slicing through it was an AMSR wet dream. Little tufts of steam emerged from the strangely large space between the skin and the meat. It smelled extra-chickeny.
If tender meat was a characteristic of my cooking method, that assertion felt theoretical here, as there was barely any meat to begin with. The chicken’s enviably toned legs had almost enough flesh for my sister and me to get by with one each and split a wing. The breast, not so much. That piece was Charles’s lot, and also, weirdly, his choice. (I will never understand preferring white meat, though I thank all of you who do.) He barely got enough for one portion from two somewhat stringy, Ashtanga teacher-sized bird-tits. The flavor was exceptional, though.
“We won’t be ordering more of those,” I said to them both, and thanked them for accompanying me on this experiment in locavore dining and neighborly exchange. I had done my bit, we could leave it at that. We had plenty of other options, anyway, including a boutique in Saint-Jouin that had every kind of meat you could imagine farmed inside a 150km radius. We got some thighs from regular old grocery store too not long after, just to make up for it. Charles dredged them in egg wash, flour and baking soda like a good American.