Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recipes from Champagne-Ardenne, France

This week we're having a capon party with champagne. Don't you just love Google Translate?

More on that later. But first I wanted to complain about my decision to divide some of the larger countries (or in France's case, countries with larger culinary traditions) into regions. I'm starting to regret this idea, because it makes the research difficult. Most collections of world cuisine aren't divided into regions, so finding specific recipes from places as small as Champagne France, for example, can be a real challenge.

Thanks to a reader, I do have a couple of regionally-divided French cookbooks on the way—but naturally they did not arrive in time for this meal. Naturally.

Anyway, the region of France that is known as Champagne-Ardenne is (duh) the birthplace of champagne (the bubbly kind). It is bordered by Belgium, so the two areas share some culinary influences. With its verdant forests, lakes, rivers and miles of vineyards, Champagne-Ardenne is one of the most beautiful regions of France, which makes it a popular tourist destination. Since it is also known for its abundant game, the cuisine is mostly rustic—stews, roasts and dishes that feature game are popular throughout the region. However, I couldn't find any of those recipes, even though I actually have some wild boar in my freezer. So I had to settle on what I could find, which was at least interesting and different although probably not the best of what Champagne-Ardenne has to offer.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Chapon de fête au Champagne, which Google Translator rather amusingly translated as "a
capon party with champagne." I think a more accurate translation is probably "Celebration Capon with Champagne." Here's the recipe:

  • 1 3 1/2 lb capon
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 tsp flour
  • 1 1/4 cups champagne
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Sounds pretty simple, huh? Except for the part where you're wondering what the hell a "capon" is.

Now, I've seen that word many times, most notably in this cool cookbook I have called Pleyn Delit, which features medieval era recipes copied from the original text (with handy translations included). Because of this book, I thought "capon" was just an old word for chicken which had fallen out of popular use over the centuries. So when I bookmarked this recipe, I was planning to make a chicken. It was only a week or so before I actually cooked the meal that it occurred to me I probably ought to make sure a capon was really just a chicken.

As it turns out, it is and it isn't. A capon is actually a castrated rooster. Because the castration is done at a very young age, capons mature without the usual hormones, so they are bigger, less aggressive, less active and therefore different in taste to an ordinary chicken. The meat of a capon is said to be more flavorful, moist and tender, which makes them ideal for a "celebration."

So now I had to find a capon, or do some more research, and I wasn't about to do that. Fortunately we were headed down to Sacramento for some errands that weekend, so I picked up a capon at Corti Brothers (oh how I love Corti Brothers, which is where I also got my kangaroo steaks).

Now, Martin hasn't actually read my blog in a few weeks so hopefully he won't find out how much I actually spent on said capon. I'm not going to give you the number, but let me just say that it was about six times as much as I would generally spend on a chicken.

Anyway, the original French language version of this recipe suggests serving the dish with Pommes Salardaises, which is what I did. Here's the recipe:

  • 2 lb Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1/4 cup duck fat
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Of course, this meant I also had to find duck fat somewhere. I didn't really want to buy a whole duck and render it or anything, so I bought it from .

Finally, I wanted to do a dessert. Here's the one I settled on:

Gâteau Mollet

  • 2 tbsp yeast (yes, that's a lot of yeast)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tbsp warm water
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup + 6 tbsp butter, softened
  • Chocolate mousse (for serving)
A couple of notes: You need a bundt pan or some other variation of a cake mold to make this recipe. Also, I did make my own chocolate mousse, but I'm not going to reprint that recipe here, because it wasn't from Champagne-Ardenne. It was from Alton Brown.

The cake takes the most time, so I'll start there.

Now this is not a sweet cake. It is really more like a glorified croissant,  which is why it needs the chocolate mousse to be an actual dessert. Here's how it's made:

First mix the yeast with the sugar, salt and water. Stir to dissolve. Now add 2 tbsp of the flour and mix well, then let stand for 30 minutes.

Yes, I thought this was a bit odd. But as you've already guessed, this isn't how I actually made this bread. I just put everything in my bread machine because, you know, kneading is for chumps.

Anyway if you're not using a bread machine, put the flour into a large bowl and make a hole in the middle. Break the eggs and pour them one at a time into the hole. Puncture the yolks, then add the yeast. Mix until smooth, then add the butter and continue mixing until you have a dough. Place in a bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let rise for two hours.

Now butter your bundt pan. Punch down the dough and press it into the pan. Cover it with a damp cloth and let it rise for another 30 minutes, or until it almost reaches the top of the pan (this took more like 90 minutes for me).

Preheat your oven to 445 degrees (I know that's a weird number, but remember that I'm translating from celcius). Remove the cloth and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until it starts to become a beautiful golden color. Serve warm with chocolate mousse.

Now on to the capon.

First preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Season the bird all over with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, put 1/4 cup of the butter in the pan you'll be using to cook your capon and stick it in the oven until it melts. Then take it out and put the capon in the pan, turning to coat completely with the butter.

Now make your oven even hotter (430 degrees). Put your capon in the oven and cook for one hour. Note: for me one hour at 430 degrees was too long. I used a meat thermometer, and turned the temperature down to 350 degrees after the meat reached a temperature of about 100. My instincts told me that a whole hour at 430 degrees was too long.

Meanwhile mix the rest of the butter with the flour. When the capon is ready, remove it from the oven and pour the juices into another pan, scraping the bottom of the original pan to get all the browned bits. Add the champagne to the juices and bring to a boil.

When the gravy has reduced a little, add the butter/flour mixture and stir. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes or until the sauce thickens (it won't be really thick).

Finally, here's how you do the potatoes:

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Now melt the duck fat in an oven-proof skillet and cook the potatoes until they are nicely browned on both sides. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer to the oven and bake for 10 minutes or so, checking to make sure they don't over-brown (some of mine did).

Now return to the stove and add the parsley and garlic. Stir for two or three minutes until the garlic softens.

So was it worth paying six times as much for the capon?

Well, now I can say I ate a capon. That's worth something, isn't it? The flavor was definitely richer than the average chicken. Strangely, though, my capon wasn't as tender as the descriptions of capon led me to believe it would be. In fact it was a little tougher than most of the chickens I've eaten. It was juicy, though, so it wasn't overcooked. So I can't really put my finger on why it wasn't exactly like it was supposed to be, but the toughness of the meat didn't make it unpleasant. It was good, and I really liked the champagne-based gravy, too. And of course my kids gobbled it up, because to them it was just a chicken.

So the answer to your question is, yes, you could probably just do this recipe with a chicken.

The potatoes were especially popular with Henry, who for some reason still doesn't know that a potato is not called a "tomato." He ate every leftover "tomato" from everyone's plate, and his squeal of delight at discovering a lone "tomato" that was still in the pan in the kitchen was like that of a child who just discovered a mountain of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Yes, the potatoes were good. But let's face it, pretty much anything cooked up in fat of any kind is going to be good, and duck fat is particularly flavorful.

As for the cake, Martin and I liked it more than the kids did. It wasn't sweet enough for their overly-Americanized notions of the ideal dessert. They mainly just focused on the chocolate mousse. It was absolutely beautiful in looks, but in flavor it really was just a glorified croissant. Buttery. Very, very buttery.

So hopefully by the time I get to our next French province (which won't actually be until Gascony and the Basque Country, way down in the G's), I'll have a few cookbooks on my shelf that will give me more direction. Until then, I'll just keep moving down that alphabet.

Next week: Chile

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. Wanted to comment somewhere other than on a recipe, but couldn't find a place. I do volunteer cooking once a week at a children's home in Chile. Every week, I select a different country and cook a full-course meal from it. My goal is to expand the children's tastes to include all kinds of cuisine from the world. This is not always an easy task, as ingredients aren't always available, and any "special" ingredients come out of my personal expenses. It's a rewarding work, though.

    All that said . . .

    I found my way here from your Botswana recipe on Your blog is amazing and I've bookmarked it. When I have more time, I'll be looking through it more closely. Until then, thank-you so much for your great idea and I hope you don't mind if I use some of these recipes at the children's home.

  2. Hi Madailéin, I'm so glad you found me! And I'm very happy to hear of your cooking project at the children's home in Chile. It's such a great thing to introduce kids to cuisine from all over the world (though you wouldn't know it based on my kids, haha). I would be very pleased if you used some of the recipes featured on my site for your work at the children's home.

    I wish you'd found me a couple of weeks ago because I just posted my entry for Chile. I felt like there were limited resources for Chilean recipes online (which is so often the case) and would love to know what you think of my choices and/or if you have any other suggestions. I will do do-overs if my readers have other ideas for me. :-)

    Thanks again and welcome! Hope you enjoy the blog.

  3. Thanks for your encouraging response (I just saw it). For some reason, I didn't get an email notifying me about it. The kids LOVE getting food from all over the world. Their favorites, they've told me, are Mexican food (I'm from Mexico, so these recipes are the easiest for me to make in a pinch), Chicken Tandoori, and Groundnut Stew.

    I saw your entry on Chilean food. I loved it! I'll go post a response over there. :-)

  4. Mmm, chicken tandoori is one of my favorites too!

  5. Hi Becki!
    My name is Amy and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for fun and authentic posts about the Ardennes to share on our travel site, when I came across your very cool cooking blog...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at amy(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!


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