Capon – The Prince of Fowl

Date: 11 January, 2022 / Author: Raymond Blake

Roasted Chapon de Bresse. Photo credit: Raymond Blake

‘…And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.’

The words of William Shakespeare in As You Like It, written over 400 years ago, attest to the enduring attraction of the finest fowl of all: the capon, or chapon in French. I first cooked this neutered rooster – who grows plump and tasty thanks to the absence of male hormones – in Burgundy for Christmas 2013 and had to wait until New Year’s Day this year to repeat the operation.

Buying the chapon in the Beaune market. Photo credit: R. Blake

This latter fellow – a fully-fledged Chapon de Bresse, with label and leg tag to guarantee authenticity – tipped the scales at 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) but by the time he went into the oven he had lost a kilo by way of head and plumage, feet, neck, various innards and a massive lump of pure fat that suggested an off-the-scale cholesterol reading. The price of €33.80 per kilo had soared north of €43 per kilo. He was bought in the Beaune market and myself and my wife had to raid a convenient ATM to withdraw the necessary wad of cash, card payment not being accepted. Fingers were tightly crossed…

Much time was then spent perusing countless cookery books and online recipes, amassing a maelstrom of information, more confusing than enlightening, until I eventually checked my diary from 2013 for inspiration. ‘Keep it simple,’ was the message then and I stuck to that, placing the bird on a bed of carrots and onions in the roasting dish, splashing some oil on top, dusting with salt, then into the oven at 220ºC for 15 minutes and down to 180ºC for about another 90.

The previous evening I had made some stock with chicken bones so, as the fowl rested, this was added to the cooking juices, carrots and onions, with a splash of white wine to de-glaze, and the lot was simmered, reduced, strained and separated to yield a marvellous gravy. Gratin Dauphinois and haricots vert completed the feast. The meat was wonderfully flavoursome and – full disclosure – notably chewy, not tough, but palates and jaw muscles more used to pasty-fleshed supermarket fowl sold at impossibly low prices will need some re-calibration to appreciate it fully.

And to drink? Noble fare such as this calls for equally patrician wine so, digging deep into the cellar, I retrieved a Pierre Morey, Meursault ‘Les Tessons’ 2002, bought directly from the domaine some dozen years ago; and a Domaine Dujac, Clos de la Roche grand cru 2001, a St Patrick’s Day gift from Roz and Jacques Seysses in 2008. Of the Meursault, I noted: ‘Lovely savoury snap on a palate uncluttered by lush fruit flavours.’ However, it was the Clos de la Roche that took top honours: ‘Vivid crimson, enticing ‘sweet incense’ nose, palate still vigorous but not in any way hard-hitting, elegance and length aplenty, goes on and on…’ It was red burgundy at its best, mature but still with years ahead of it.

Then followed the traditional Galette des Rois – the wonderfully simple yet seductive confection of buttery-rich, flaky pastry filled with dense almond paste. This is food as comfort blanket and I always top it off with a cool blob of putty-thick crème fraiche bought from Fromagerie Alain Hess on Place Carnot in Beaune, to add a gentle ping of freshness. We drank a Quarts de Chaume, Château de Suronde 1993 with the galette. If the liquorice sweetness of Sauternes is too much for your palate then the racier sweet wines made from the woefully under-appreciated Chenin Blanc grape are for you. This was just such a wine. Approaching its 30th birthday it was not too sweet, rather there was a smoky, singed, bitter orange marmalade character, finishing with an almost spicy bite. In truth, it divided opinion at the table but I was a fan.

And finally… the fève. Hidden in the depths of every galette is a tiny figurine or trinket and whoever comes across this in their slice is crowned king or queen. Mothers strain to make sure that the fève goes to the youngest child, or insert a few extra ones to make sure none are left out. Ours this year was a hen – to add to the collection of 15 others from previous years. Here’s to many more.

The fève collection. Photo credit: Raymond Blake

Raymond Blake has been writing about wine for 25 years and has been published across the globe. He is a regular contributor to 67 Pall Mall TV. His latest book, Wine Talk, is published by Skyhorse, New York, later this month.

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