This dish of Chicken Savoyarde is an adaptation of a 200 year old recipe. Sometimes, things get lost in the translation when you go from French to English, but one thing for sure, this recipe is a simple peasant dish that has been elevated to most elegant and sophisticated dinning experience.
The Alps are emblematic, mountains as metaphor. They’re imposing, romantic, operatic—inspiring us to poetry and to heroic deeds , whether fearlessly scaling their faces or just schussing in mild terror down the intermediate ski run. They are also famous for their food, promising to nourish us with honest, robust fare once we’ve conquered the slopes in one direction or the other (or even just thought about doing so). This is especially true, not surprisingly, on the French side of the Alps.
A hugely varied terrain, much of the Savoie is covered by high-altitude mountain plateaux, steep gradients, deep river valleys, farmland and lakes, plus of course huge swathes of the land are covered in snow for half the year, so the people who historically lived and travelled here were very hardy folk.
They are also famous for their food, promising to nourish us with honest, robust fare once we’ve conquered the slopes in one direction or the other (or even just thought about doing so). This is especially true, not surprisingly, on the French side of the Alps.
The region of Savoie, divided into the departements of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, lies at the heart of the French Alps—the remnants of a kingdom that ruled much of this part of Europe for eight centuries, until the mid-1800s—and it is here that French mountain cooking thrives most vigorously. The raw materials are rich and varied—cheese(Beaufort, Tome and of course Reblochon) and other dairy products; apples, pears, plums, and cherries; mountain berries and wild mushrooms; wild game; fresh fish from local lakes—not just trout but perch, pike, and the sublime omble-chevalier. Fondue Savoyarde is the region’s most famous dish, but hearty soups and stews (among them the famous Potee), civets of game, potato dishes, and glorious fruit tarts all appear on the Savoyard table as well.
If you are a fan of winter sports, take note that The Savoie is home to many of France’s most fashionable ski resorts—Chamonix, Courchevel, and Val d’Isere among them—and these, of course, imply elaborate resort hotels: mountain palaces with serious dining rooms serving dishes that may or may not owe anything to their surroundings. But basic country cooking has survived as well in the Savoie, both in homes and in restaurants, and there are even signs today that the ski culture is beginning a romance with the region’s traditional gastronomy.
For nearly 200 years, in the autumn, the men of the village descended to larger towns to find work for the winter. The women and children stayed behind, often living with the livestock to keep warm. In spring, the men returned, rushing back to plant their crops and lead their animals into summer pastures. Summer was the time to harvest wild herbs to dry for the winter menu. Before the men left the village again, pigs were slaughtered, and hams and sausages were made. In the communal oven, loaves of rye bread were baked, to be stored for months on wicker racks. (Before serving, they were softened in a damp towel. Otherwise, they’d have been rock-hard.) With chestnuts and polenta, these were the staples of the winter diet.
During the long months of winter, the people of Chamonix also depended on a diet of potatoes, cheese, onions, and pork products. Today, these same ingredients are still basic to the local cuisine. One of the most popular offerings is an ancient specialty called reblochonnade (also known as tartiflette), a sturdy cousin of the classic gratin savoyard. The dish is made of thinly sliced potatoes sauteed with bacon and onions, moistened with cream, then baked in the oven. Finally, generous slices of creamy reblochon (a cow’s-milk cheese made in the Haute-Savoie) are melted on top. The dish feels hearty enough to insulate against the most bracing winter winds, all the way till spring. Local children still made their way to school through the snow in hobnailed wood-soled shoes. For lunch, they carried simple meals of potato fritters and cafe au lait, to be reheated over the school’s wood stove.
That was life—and food—here before skiing. Things began to change in 1878, when a Savoyard named Henri Duhamel bought some narrow wooden planks from Scandinavia at the Paris Exposition and introduced them to the Alps. “The use of skis permits a skilled Alpine peasant to go easily from one point to another,” explained an article in La Croix de Savoie in 1908.
By the 1930s, Val d’Isere had started to become a center for winter sports enthusiasts. One of the first hotels in town to earn a reputation beyond the Alps was Hotel Le Solaise, opened in December 1938 by Noel and Palmyre Machet. :The grocer in Tignes delivered provisions for the whole winter all at once,” Palmyre remembered. “We served Savoie ham, trout, and game. In those days, you had to have a passion for the mountains to come to Val d’Isere. There were no lifts to get you up the slopes. You had to be dragged on sealskins by mules. Everyone carried spools of red wool to unwind for marking spots susceptible to avalanche.
Today, skiing in Val d’Isere is a high-tech pursuit, but at the table, time-honored specialties of the region are very much in evidence—crozets (small cubes of buckwheat pasta), diots (local sausages, usually braised in white wine), polenta, and Potee. The Hotel Le Solaise is gone, but at the restaurant that bears its name, Laurent Caffot, the Machets’ grandson, prepares exquisite frogs’ legs and omble-chevalier. He turns plebeian snails into a light and elegant fricassee. And he is not afraid to marry foie gras with polenta, one of the simple foods of yesteryear. The roots of the village still run deep.
Still, local residents don’t forget their history: Charlemagne waged battles here against the Lombard armies; pilgrims and merchants passed through, traveling between France and Italy. The ascent from Piedmont was long and steep. On the French side, the slope was milder. Travelers made their descent in sledges made of bound branches, which moved fast but were short on comfort. Happily, at the end of the journey there were inns and taverns.
The Savoy region of France borders on Switzerland and Italy and is jagged with the French Alps. It is well known for its wines, cheeses and Savoyarde cuisine, that is rich with cream and delicate cheese sauces. This recipe for Chicken Savoyarde is typical of that style of cooking, featuring sautéed chicken breasts that are cooked in a white wine and served with artichokes and a smooth velouté enriched with cream and Gruyere cheese. Broiled until bubbly and golden brown, this dish is a perfect entrée for a Sunday Dinner. The boneless chicken and artichoke bottoms, baked in a white wine sauce. It can be prepared ahead and baked at the last minutes. Very little work for gourmet main course. You can serve this dish with a green salad, asparagus and mashed potatoes for a complete meal.
Serves 6 to 8
For the Chicken:
4 whole chicken breasts, 1 1/2 pound each, boned, skinned, and split
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, sliced
1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt, to taste
a dash of ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
¼ cup dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
½ tablespoon Clovis Tarragon Dijon Mustard™ (See Cook’s Notes)
One 14-ounce can of artichoke bottoms(See Cook’s Notes)
6 thin slices of Swiss cheese
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Fresh chopped parsley, for garnish
Pat the chicken breasts dry with clean paper towels. Add the flour to a shallow dish and season with salt and pepper. In a large heavy skillet, over medium high heat, add the vegetable oil and butter. When the butter is melted, add onion, tarragon and them. Sauté onion until tender and translucent.
Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour and shake off the excess. To the onion mixture in the skillet, add the chicken breasts, four pieces at a time, arrange then in a single layer. Sauté the chicken breasts for 15 minutes, turning once with tongs. Remove the chicken from the skillet; add the remaining uncooked chicken breasts and repeat the cooking process. Return all the chicken to the skillet.
To the sautéed chicken breasts in the skillet, add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a dash of pepper and 1/2 cup dry white wine; mix well. Cover and simmer the chicken over low heat for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, make the sauce.
To Make the Sauce. Melt the butter in a pan and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook gently for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat, and gradually stir in the stock and wine. Finally, add the cream, tarragon and a little salt and pepper to taste. Return to the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes, then stir in the cheese and the mustard. Taste and adjust seasonings. Use in a chicken gratin as directed below.
In a small saucepan, over low heat, gently warm the artichokes and drain.
Arrange the chicken breasts in a shallow heat proof baking dish, preferably glass. Arrange the artichokes around the chicken. Spoon the sauce all over the chicken and artichokes. Lay a slice of Swiss cheese on top of each chicken breast. Sprinkle with a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Place the baking dish under the broiler and broil until chicken is thoroughly heated and the cheese is bubbly, about 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve hot, family style.
Sauce: You can make this sauce as a stand alone accompaniment for other dishes. The sauce makes the perfect partner to Sunday’s roast chicken and can equally well be used to dress up the left-over chicken next day.
Mustard: If you cannot find Clovis Tarragon Dijon Mustard™, feel free to use 1 tablespoon of commercially prepared mustard and 1 teaspoon of chopped fresh tarragon as reasonable substitutes.
Sour Cream: You can substitute sour cream for the heavy cream. There are variations of this recipe that do use sour cream and sometimes half & half.
Onion Mixture: In the original recipe, it appears that the onions were discarded in the presentation of the final dish. In making a kitchen sustainable, the onion and wine mixture can be pureed and frozen for future use, such as a base for a vegetable or onion soup.
Artichokes: Canned artichoke bottoms sliced is used n this recipe. But you can also use artichoke hearts, if artichoke bottoms are not available in your local supermarket. Also note that fresh Jerusalem artichokes, when in season, are delicious and a less expensive alternative to artichoke hearts and bottoms. To cook them, scrub the artichokes; boil in salted water until fork tender. Drain, peel and slice into rounds.
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