The history and origins of coq au vin, a classically French chicken stew, are somewhat muddled: rumor and legend abound and practically every region in France claims credit for the dish.
Popular legend has it that coq au vin was created for Julius Caesar. As tribute to Caesar for conquering them, the angry Gauls delivered unto him a tough old rooster. Caesar's cook allegedly stewed the bird, making the best of what he was given, and created coq au vin.
Stewing is an ancient form of cooking, and while it's possible that Caesar was given a chicken stew after the invasion of Gaul, coq au vin as a specific recipe came on the scene in the 20th century. Documenting recipes is often difficult, especially one as flexible as a stew, but the earliest reliable documentation of coq au vin is from 1913. Edmond Richardin wrote L'Art de Bien Manger (The Art of Eating Well), published in 1913, which features the first recipe for coq au vin.
Richardin claims he discovered coq au vin at "l'auberge du temple de Mercure", at Puy-de-Dome in Auvergne. He was served the stew at the inn and was so enraptured with the dish that he summoned the restauranteur and requested the secret recipe. Richardin copied it from the proprietor's notebook, which he claimed dated from the 16th century.
In 1938, a cookbook--Larousse Gastronomique--by Prosper Montagne also claims its recipe for coq au vin is "after an ancient recipe". This is possible: the technique of cooking meat, especially less-than-tender cuts, by simmering it en casserole--slowly stewing it in an earthenware container--in wine or broth has been utilized since ancient times. Most likely, the stew evolved as a local recipe in France in the tradition of more ancient meat stews, gaining distinctive flavors depending on the region in which it was prepared, and Richardin's book codified the recipe for the first documentable time in history. Coq au vin gained popularity in the United States in the 1960s, like all things French.
If there is a hint of truth in the cooking-with-Caesar story, it is that coq au vin or its culinary ancestor was probably made with a tough, old rooster. This means that the dish was probably originally regarded as provincial, peasant fare--wealthier diners could afford better, more tender cuts of meat. Good breeding cocks on stock farms would be kept as long as they continued to perform their function, which meant they could be several years old by the time they were killed. The tough meat therefore needed to be tenderized by long, slow braising.
Nowadays, coq au vin is made with tender cuts of chicken from either a hen or a capon--a castrated rooster raised solely for food. Richardin's recipe calls for the aforementioned bird, good red wine from Auvergne, bacon, onion, garlic and mushrooms. Burgundy, however, has become the standard wine for making coq au vin. Of course, other regions have their own local variations: Alan Davidson wrote, "In Franche-Comte the bird is simmered in vin jaune; and in Alsace in Riesling. In both these regions morels"--a type of wild mushroom--"and cream are gladly added if available." Brandy is also sometimes added. Such regional variations suggest that chicken stews such as coq au vin have been popular country fare for ages, long before the publication of any codified recipe.
Many traditional recipes also call for the rooster's blood to be used as a thickener in the sauce at the end of cooking; today, the sauce is more often thickened with a roux. Lardons--bits of lard injected into a piece of tough meat before cooking--are also included in coq au vin, or common substitutes such as unsmoked bacon or pancetta. The lardons are cooked with the fat from browning the other ingredients and added flour to form the roux.
Delicious, French, and with a convoluted history: what else could one want from a chicken stew? The American National Coq Au Vin Day is May 29th. Go forth and eat, ye gourmands.
Davidson, Alan. Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 196.
Montagne, Prosper. Larousse Gastronomique. Paris: Librarie Larousse, 1938. 354.
Richardin, Edmond. L'Art de Bien Manger. Paris: Editions D'Art et de Litterature, 1913. 34-5.