Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Theseus' Recipe

The most common question that food historians face is "How old is the recipe for [insert favorite food]?" Sometimes the answer is easy - cream cheese was invented around 1872. Other times though it's hard to be sure, either because of disagreements about history, or because the documentation gets really vague the farther back you go.

This post is about one of the more uncertain dishes: Coq au Vin.

Photo by Steven Depolo via Wikimedia Commons

One of my cousins was talking about making this dish, and was curious about its history. Of course the moment he mentioned it I had no choice but to dive in and see what I could find out. As usual, the first step is just to check Wikipedia. Yeah, I know, but for surface-level information it can be really useful. According to Wikipedia ...
Various legends trace coq au vin to ancient Gaul and Julius Caesar, but the recipe was not documented until the early 20th century; it is generally accepted that it existed as a rustic dish long before that. A somewhat similar recipe, poulet au vin blanc, appeared in an 1864 cookbook.
Ancient Gaul and Julius Caesar ... um, yeah. One of the big red flags in food history is when an origin traces back to Rome. Everyone wants their grandma's specialty dish to date back to ancient Rome (the other big red flag is when a cheese is claimed to have been Charlemagne's favorite - apparently every single freaking cheese in the world was Charlemagne's favorite - I hear he was particularly fond of plastic wrapped American cheese slices).

So lets try a different angle and look at the ingredients in Coq au Vin. I did a quick search and picked a recipe that looked pretty traditional - this one from Bon Apétit. Here is what it calls for:
red wine
tomato paste
chicken broth
wild mushrooms
There's one big problem in that list already, tomato paste.  The tomato is a new-world plant and wasn't available outside of the Americas before 1500 AD.  I checked a couple of other online recipes and found that not all Coq au Vin recipes call for tomato paste (though Julia Child's recipe does and that's close to religious doctrine there). We'll let this pass ... for the moment.

The recipe also calls for carrots, celery, and onions - a.k.a. mirepoix. While those ingredients were available in Europe for pretty much all of written history, The practice of dicing them up and sautéeing them together as the base of a recipe doesn't seem to go back before 1700. Again though, not every Coq au Vin recipe out there calls for mirepoix.

So what if we pare the ingredients list down to the very basics? We'll limit it to just chicken, bacon, onions, and wine and see if we can find something close in the surviving cookbooks. At first it seems promising - two recipes from medieval France. On closer examination though neither seem quite what we're looking for. The first, Bruet of Almayn, is a long one. It has all the expected ingredients but has a lot of other stuff as well (including almond milk). The second is closer, but still with the additions of cinnamon and liver and blood ... maybe not.
George Soup, Parsley-laced Soup. Take poultry cut into quarters, veal or whatever meat you wish cut into pieces, and put to boil with bacon: and to one side have a pot, with blood, finely minced onions which you should cook and fry in it. Have also bread browned on the grill, then moisten it with stock from your meat and wine, then grind ginger, cinnamon, long pepper, saffron, clove and grain and the livers, and grind them up so well that there is no need to sift them: and moisten with verjuice, wine and vinegar. And when the spices are removed from the mortar, grind your bread, and mix with what it was moistened with, and put it through the sieve, and add spices and leafy parsley if you wish, all boiled with the blood and the onions, and then fry your meat. And this soup should be brown as blood and thick like 'soringue'.  [Le Menagier de Paris, (France, 1393 - Janet Hinson, trans.)]
If we limit the ingredients list to just chicken, onions, and wine then there are a lot more possible matches. Almost a couple dozen. Some of them are closer to Coq au Vin than the others. Does the English recipe below count?
xlij - Conyng, Mawlard, in gely or in cyuey. Take Conynge, Hen, or Mawlard, and roste hem alle-most y-now, or ellys choppe hem, an frye hem in fayre Freysshe grece; an frye myncyd Oynenons, and caste alle in-to the potte, and caste ther-to fayre Freysshe brothe, an half Wyne, Maces, Clowes, Powder pepir, Canelle; than take fayre Brede, an wyth the same brothe stepe, an draw it thorw a straynoure wyth vynegre; an whan it is wyl y-boylid, caste the lycoure ther to, and powder Gyngere, and Salt, and sesyn it vp an serue forth.  [Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, (England, 1430)]

Here's the problem, how many changes can you make to a recipe before it's not the same recipe anymore? My wife and I sometimes joke about making Greek Blueberry Pie with substitutions. It would have lamb and olives and garlic and grape leaves and no blueberries ... actually it wouldn't be much of a blueberry pie, but it would be very Greek.

I don't have a definitive answer, but I'm pretty comfortable saying that the modern recipes are modern. They may be related to something made centuries ago, but they're probably not the same thing. Yes, they cooked chicken in wine back in ancient Rome, but Coq au Vin most likely originated no earlier than the mid-19th century.