Keith Allan: why chicken in a bag tastes so good

Chicken in a bladder at the Hotel Bristol in Paris
Chicken in a bladder at the Hotel Bristol in Paris

A chicken cooked in a bag doesn’t sound all that much to write home about. But poach it in a bladder for four hours under the guiding hand of Eric Frechon, three star Michelin chef de cuisine at the Bristol Hotel in Paris, and it’s an entirely different matter.

As a signature dish of Frechon’s Epicure Restaurant, the blown up bladder is brought to the table with great ceremony and once pierced it reveals a whole Bresse chicken. It is then placed on a board and the two, creamy white breasts are deftly carved from the bone and put on a warm plate with green asparagus, morels and little pieces of crayfish.

Accompanied by a delicious sauce made with a good splash of Vin Jaune, an expensive and famously dry, yellow-looking wine from Jura in eastern France, we could only marvel at how a chicken gets to taste so good!

Meanwhile, the legs are taken away and cooked a little more and come back as a separate dish with truffled stock of leeks and potatoes.

On our return from Paris we thought we would try to get close to recreating this amazing dish. But first we needed the two prime ingredients.

The vineyards of the Jura go back to Roman times and the wines from this region come exclusively from five grape varieties: Chardonnay and Savagnin (white), Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir (red).

Vin Jaune is made from the Savagnin variety. The grapes are harvested late and then aged in small oak barrels for a minimum of six years three months, although some producers wait 10 years.

The slightly porous oak barrels are not airtight, so nearly 40 per cent of the wine evaporates over the years, which is known, by the way, as “the angels’ share”.

A thick layer of yeast, which looks like foam, develops on the surface of the wine and it’s this ageing method which gives the wine its distinctive flavour and aroma of walnuts and almonds.

It also comes in a special, squat-looking bottle called a clavelin, containing 0.62 litres instead of 0.75. The reason? Well, remember the angels have drunk the rest! £50 buys Vin Jaune that has matured 10 years in the bottle while £350 gets you something that has spent 60 years in the bottle.

More difficult to procure is a French chicken, bred and reared for the table. However, it so happens that Mary Howlett of Liddesdale Free Range at Newcastleton can sail to our rescue.

For a number of years now we have been buying her delicious chickens from the various farmers’ markets that she attends and there is nothing to compare with them.

They are indeed French and are free to roam and dust themselves. Fattened on a natural diet of wheat and maize they are slow grown to between 80 and a 100 days and the oven ready birds come in at about two kilos. Mary plucks and prepares these beautiful birds on the farm and not 
surprisingly they are in great demand wherever she goes.

Such details are important in the quest for our dish. We don’t have a proper recipe yet and it may take two or three attempts to get it right. But when we do we’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you catch an early morning train from Berwick you can be at Le Bristol in Paris by late afternoon, preparing to dine with the great man himself. But don’t go without booking!

•Keith and Lynne Allan run the Restoration Coffee Shop as part of their country concept store at the Old Dairy in Ford. They specialise in artisan roast coffee and freshly baked scones and cakes.