Thursday, 20 November 2014

Poule Au Pot

It was the 16th C French King, Henri IV, aka Henri de Navarre who, I believe, said, "I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he cannot put a chicken in his pot every Sunday." It became a graphic measure of being above the poverty line and one that caught the popular imagination. Hardly surprising if you lived off the monotonous European peasant diet of dense, black bread and dried peas all the time. In fact Henri couldn't quite make good his promise but it stuck in the mindset of the French people as an aspiration worth hanging on to and by the time of the French Revolution, Henri's promise, and the delay to it becoming reality, had been turned into a little ditty, chanted as a political slogan:

Enfin la poule au pot va être mise.
On peut du moins le présumer
car depuis deux cents ans qu'elle nous est promise
on n'a cessé de la plumer!

(Finally the chicken's going to get put in the pot.
at least that's what we assume
because for the last two hundred years that it's been promised
it's been being plucked!)

Recipes for La Poule au Pot abound and I am sure many of them go back as far as Henri IV's day - it's the kind of cuisine rustique that is timeless.  Of course, we aren't talking about the kind of chicken we cook and eat today, with a lot of tender, white meat that cooks quickly and easily under a grill or even, is done to a turn as a roast, after an hour and a half in a hot oven; we're talking about a boiling fowl, probably several years old and past laying; a lean, scraggy bird, nearer to stringy than plump and, not to put too fine a point on it, probably pretty tough. Needing long, slow cooking for several hours, submerged in liquid with a few pot-herbs to flavour the broth and bulk out the meat. Traditionally these included onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, turnips, parsley, bay leaves, cloves. At the end of the cooking period the fragrant, intensely flavoured broth was served first and the meat and vegetables afterwards. Very simple, but very good. I make a version of this myself, in the winter

The nearest we can get to the kind of chicken a French 16th C peasant would have recognised and been pleased to see in his pot is pheasant. Gamier, leaner, rangier birds than modern chickens altogether. It's coming to the time of year when pheasant is again available and I am looking forward to that. Cautiously.

I love roast pheasant. I make pheasant soup with the carcase and any remaining fragments of meat. I've made pheasant risotto and even pheasant and bacon sausages in my time. But there's no doubt about it that eating pheasant is a bit different from eating chicken. These are basically wild birds and they are shot, not killed in an abattoir somewhere. And you don't necessarily get them oven-ready in plastic trays. I don't eat a great deal of meat but I am not a vegetarian and in all conscience, I think that if I am not a vegetarian I should face the reality of what that means. When the game season approaches, I feel it is time to gird myself for that. One year, a few years ago, a kind, local landowner offered me a couple of brace of pheasant from a shoot on his land, which I was delighted to accept. Especially as they hadn't been hung for too long because I don't like game that's too "high". Before handing them over, he looked at me and clearly thinking that I gave off feeble "townie vibes" offered to get them plucked and drawn for me. Feeling that to accept this was copping out, I thanked him but declined his offer and said I would do the job myself.

I came home with the four birds and laid them in their bright, iridescent plumage on the kitchen table. It was the Christmas holidays and H was at home. He came into the kitchen and I explained what I was going to do and suggested he might give me a hand. He took one look, went an interesting shade of pale green and disappeared faster than you could say "knife", let alone start wielding one. Left alone, the pheasants and I spent a long afternoon together .

Plucking poultry was not something I'd done before. Waitrose doesn't tend to sell its chicken breasts still "in feather". Two hours later and I had managed to pluck and draw one of the birds but still had three to go. It was messy, surprisingly hard work and about as earthy as it gets. I wasn't going to be beaten however, so I doggedly stuck at it, plucking and drawing another one in its entirety and skinning and jointing the remaining two until darkness fell and the kitchen looked like the aftermath of a particularly vicious pillow fight and I had four birds, more or less ready for the pot. I couldn't face cooking them immediately so they waited until the following day. It was a useful lesson in the realities of cooking and eating that I've never forgotten and it's made me much more selective about eating meat. I still do, and of course, I don't pluck and draw all that I cook, but I think about it more consciously and if I ever get to the point where I can't face the idea of doing it, I shall become a vegetarian.

If you are a proper countrywoman (which I am not) you take these things in your stride but if you're a more recent country-dweller, it's more of a challenge, I have to say.

Rather easier going was a little knitting project I came across a few weeks ago and which took altogether less stress to get "oven ready". Like to meet him?

Here he is!

He comes from Louise Walker's book Faux Taxidermy Knits and I love him! You can also buy the pheasant pattern on its own here as a download. He knits up pretty quick - uses chunky wool and 9mm knitting needles - so if you fancy a poule / faisan au pot yourself it's not a big project.

I love him extra much because he is entirely user-friendly - no plucking required and no giblets to face either!

As you can see, he has decided to take up residence in one of my large Le Creuset casseroles for the time being.

I think he's got wind of Saturday's pheasant shoot, on the estate down the road or may be he was listening to the news about bird 'flu on a duck farm in Yorkshire and has decided that keeping a low profile might be a good idea.

Either way, he's hunkering down and not coming out in a hurry!

Which may be a problem if I want to cook a real poule au pot at the weekend!

For the time being however he's making me and everyone else smile, without fail, on entering the kitchen, so I'm leaving him undisturbed!

And what's for supper, I hear you ask? I am chickening (sorry!) out and producing pasta with vegetarian tomato and red pepper sauce! Someone must move off the hob first though to avoid tomato sauce spattering his tail feathers!


  1. What a fun post, really made me smile.

  2. I love your knitted pheasant, but sadly I don't like eating real ones, I have bad memories from childhood of having to eat pheasant with lead shot intact! xx

  3. Same here had pheasant as a child and yuck! Your knitted one lovely x

  4. You made me smile I much preffer the wooly pheasant, my Nan was a country girl who's job was to draw poultry, the turkey's at Christmas, none of the men could face it. They lived off the land my Mum tells stories of picking the shot out of dinner, one time my Grandad dropped the feed bucket and startled the turkey's and one bolted and broke it neck, my Grandad was to be found trying revive it with Brandy, alas to no avail. Me I'm not that tough, Nan taught me well though I always boil the chicken bones for stock. Have a great weekend.
    Clare xx

  5. I have never eaten pheasant, or plucked one, or a chicken. I think it would do me good (to pluck one), it is so easy to forget where food comes from and what is involved in producing a neat package of, lets say, chicken breasts. I love your knitted pheasant, what a fun creature to knit. I might look Louise Walker's book up on Amazon, although I don't see myself knitting any creatures in the near future, the days are just too short for fun projects like it. Have a lovely weekend. x

  6. oh excellent ! j'adore ! ton post me fait sourire !! en tout cas, ton tricot est super !! et la mise en scène excellente !!! bon week end and take care !

  7. Ton billet m'a fait rire, mais j'avoue que je ne suis pas assez courageuse moi-même pour plumer et vider un poulet, je laisse D. s'en charger !...
    Et sais-tu ? J'ai exactement la même cocotte Le Creuset que toi !!! Elle appartenait à ma grand-mère, et je penserai à toi lorsque j'y ferai une poule au pot !

  8. Ahh, you conjured up childhood memories of dipping the 'fowl to be dinner' in boiling water and then helping to pluck it and singeing the pin feathers off! An altogether yucky job, but I like to eat and we grew our meat (or hunted it). I agree that it is good to know where the food comes from and what goes into making it edible. I do however appreciate my local meat market with friends who own it and cut and wrap it for me - I don't even feel guilty about it! I love the knitted pheasant, I am so impressed that you picked up knitting so well! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  9. I love your knitted pheasant - he's so colourful and looks right at home in that casserole dish! My mother used to always get our Christmas turkey needing to be plucked etc. Of course I had to get involved in the messy business. I get oven ready these days!

  10. Que divertido, me ha encantado la idea.

  11. Hello Mrs. T - what a lovely bird. I am impressed by your perseverance with knitting. How are you finding the new skill? Are you going to have a go at knitting a jumper or even a hat? I'm currently wallowing in bed with a bothersome cold so am thinking to myself "Hmmn, chicken soup could a be good thing for dinner" so thanks for the inspiration. It reminds me of a friend I used to have from Lewes - a very genteel Vicar's daughter - who every Christmas earned some money plucking turkeys on a large farm; it sounds like every penny would have been well and truly earned. I admire your attitude to the preparation of meat - you are a brave woman! Love Judy X

  12. Hello, your bird is a real cute one, and knitted! So you mastered a knitting project. Congratulations! And kudos to you that you plucked pheasants. I haven't done it and I don't know if I would be able to do it. I am not a vegetraian, too but I select carefully where to buy meat. I am working for a local Demeter farm and the meat they sell is the only meat I buy. I know that the animals on this farm lead a healthy life. They are able to spend their time outside and they are not filled up with pharmaceuticals. We always have the choice, that's what I believe devoutly. Have a nice day, VIola

  13. wonderful post...lovely crochet!!!!!!
    wish you a wonderful adventtime,

  14. Haha, funny, especially the photo where he's headfirst in the pot ;-). Great job and you've chosen perfect yarns! Have a nice Advent time, Nata

  15. Cannot imagine how I missed this post of yours several weeks ago, but so glad to pop in and read of your daring tale with those four pheasants. Eek, what an adventure! It is hard to believe you did all that wielding of the knife, not to even mention the plucking of the feathers.

    Your knitted pheasant looks right at home on your hob, and makes for a charming guest while you putz around in your kitchen. He is so correct in his detailing, down to his perfect little beedy eyes.

    Merry Christmas if we don't chat until the Day of Christmas.

  16. Helloo, hope everything's fine with you! *** Merry Christmas!! ***

  17. My mum often prepared birds or game such as hare for the pot. Plucking feathers is the least of it. It was a disgusting process to be honest. It was messy but more to the point it stank. All highly off-putting and the digestive juices were somewhat underwhelmed and not at rushing forth in anticipation of a delicious meal. Relating the gelatinous, bloody, veiny and sinuous mess I had been witness to, to a tasty pie just didn't work for me. The experience over some years really did nothing to help me equate to dead bodies as being something to put into my own. Perhaps that is why the majority of children are not told what meat is, and then by the time they learn the habit of eating it is too ingrained for them to care about where it comes from.

    It strikes me as highly wasteful to kill an animal literally to put in our stomach. It seemed such a dishonourable thing for me to do for such short term gain - to keep myself stoked in energy for a few very short hours, while ending the animals life forever - so permanent. I couldn't make it add up, so I chose not to pursue death and eat beans instead. I agree though, that if you are going to eat it, then best know what it is you are eating. Also that fluffy wild bunny that people are often loathe to eat in comparison with the stuff in polystyrene in the shops had at least the chance of a happy, free and natural life before it died.

  18. Hi there, hope everything's o.k. with you! Happy New Year, wishing you lots of luck, healtch and creativity :-)
    All the best, Nata xxx

  19. I miss your blog. I hope you come back soon.
    (Cathy in texas.)

  20. Oh wow, I absolutely love him, the colours are fantastic. I can't knit to save my life, but would love to try a crochet version. x


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