Chicken with Vinegar Sauce
The French city of Lyon has been internationally known as culinary destination since the 16th Century with its regional specialties that have become elevated in status as Lyonnaise cuisine. These dishes featured summer vegetables from farms in Bresse and Charolais, game from the Dombes, lake fish from Savoy, spring fruits and vegetables from Drôme and Ardèche, and wines from Beaujolais and the Rhone Valley.
In the 18th Century, middle-class women, Mères lyonnaises (Mothers of Lyon) gave birth to Lyon’s current gourmet reputation. These women of modest means, left their homes to work as cooks in large wealthy households in Lyon and eventually started their own businesses, serving dishes that mixed homemade and traditional French cuisine, creating a brand new culinary traditions incorporating their regional roots.The first historical mention of a Mère dates back to Mère Guy in 1759. Located on the Rhône River in the Mulatière region, her self-named guinguette, an open-air restaurant) specialized inmatelote d’anguilles, which was a dish of stewed eels in white or red-wine sauce.
A century later, Mère Guy’s granddaughters, referred to as La Génie (the Genius) and Maréchal, became the new face of Mère Guy, bringing back classic recipes, including their grandmother’s stewed eels, the dish that “made the Mère Guy reputation.” This reputation attracted honoured guests, including the Empress Eugénie on her annual visit to the thermal waters of neighbouring Aix-les-Bains. Around this time (1830-1850), Mère Brigousse ran a restaurant in the Charpennes district of Lyon. One of her most popular dishes was Tétons de Vénus (En: Venus’ breasts), large breast-shaped quenelles.
Mère Fillioux (Françoise Fillioux, 1865-1925) was the first Mère whose “reputation was known well beyond the limits of the city and region.” She established a restaurant on 73 rue Duquesne, known for a simple, unchanging menu featuring her own culinary creations, such as volaille demi-deuil (Fowl in half-mourning). The dish takes its name from her technique of cooking “a fattened hen with slivers of truffle inserted between skin and flesh. The alternating black and white appearance of the flesh explains the term ‘half mourning’, a period following the all-black dress of full mourning, when it was acceptable for widows to alternate black and white or grey clothing.” Their success was linked to the rise of automobile tourism, as promoted by the Michelin Guide, and the development of the city of Lyon under mayor Edouard Herriot. While the Mères started out serving a client base of working-class people, such as journeymen, in this industrial city, the reputation of their meals soon spread to a much wealthier clientele. Celebrities, businessmen and politicians came to frequent these establishments despite the mixing of the social classes, particularly in the Golden Age of the Mères, during the Inter-War period. They offered a menu that was simple (four or five traditional dishes yet refined enough to guarantee both culinary pleasure and a welcoming ambiance.
Many more women joined their numbers during the Great Depression, when they were let go from the wealthy households that employed them. In 1935, the famed food critic Curnonsky, also known as Maurice Edmond Sailland (1872-1956), did not hesitate to describe the city of Lyon as the “world capital of gastronomy.” In the 21st Century, Lyon’s cuisine is defined by simplicity and quality, and is exported to other parts of France and abroad. With more than a thousand eateries, the city of Lyon has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita in France.
There is nothing fussy about Lyonnaise cuisine. It just plain tastes good, really good, and you can get a lot of it on your plate without breaking your budget trying to feed a hungry crowd. And poulet au vinaigre is one of the most potently consoling dishes ever to come from the French kitchen.
The chicken is browned and then simmered in a sauce built in two stages with stock, white wine, vinegar, shallots, garlic, onions, tomatoes and cream. While the trio of alliums gives it a rich depth of flavor, it’s the racy if cream-muffled notes of acidity from the tomatoes, vinegar and wine that make this dish so satisfying, leaving you very happy and deeply nourished. Poulet au vinaigre is the perfect dish to invite friends over for dinner during the cold winter months, and to enjoy it with a good rustic bread and fine bottle of Burgundy.
Serves 4 to 6
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
One 3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
6 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 large white onion, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 Roma tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup red wine vinegar
¾ cup chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried, plus fresh tarragon leaves for garnish
½ teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups light cream
Cooked white rice, for serving
Heat butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken and cook, turning to brown all over, 3-4 minutes per side. Set aside on a plate and tent with foil to keep warm.
To the same Dutch oven, add garlic, onions and shallots and sauté over medium-low heat until transparent but not browned, 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle with flour, then add tomatoes, wine, vinegar, stock, tarragon, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Mix and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Return chicken pieces to pan, lower heat to medium-low, and cook, partially covered, until chicken is tender and cooked through, 45 minutes.
Remove chicken pieces. Add cream and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat, 1 hour. Pass sauce through a strainer or fine-mesh sieve. Adjust seasoning if needed. Return chicken and sauce to pot and place over medium heat to warm, 5 minutes.
To serve, arrange chicken pieces over white rice. Spoon sauce over chicken and sprinkle with fresh tarragon, if using.
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