December 27, 2016
Noël in Provence: Chapon
Our Christmas day Chapon: another tradition in Provence (and France more broadly). A chapon is a young, castrated rooster, generally born in June and eaten at Christmas - by then, a well-fattened bird. I ordered mine in advance from a chicken farmer in a nearby village (again, a recommendation of my lovely family friend Karine). Xavier and I went to pick up our freshly killed bird Christmas Eve morning. The road there looks like this - the valley often blanketed in fog. The farm itself was entirely covered by fog and we were straining to find it - small roads, no precise address (just a road name). I hardly remembered to bring enough cash - of course the farmer does not take a card...he makes his living selling fresh eggs and chickens. So grateful for country life around here. We walked away with our chapon; I was nervous. It is a bit of a feat to cook one of these birds well.
Earlier in the week I had stopped by our village butcher after picking Romy up at school. We walked in together and said bonjour to each of the 5 people waiting in line. When it was our turn, Romy noticed a photograph on the wall behind the butcher and said, "Ça c'est Gabriel, mon copain à l'école!" The butcher lit up and said Gabriel is his grandson. We talked about the village crèche (Romy's 'school') and both praised the women who work there. I then told him about my chapon project and confided that I felt a bit daunted by the whole thing - feeding 13 (French) people for Christmas dinner and incorporating lots of food I had never before attempted cooking. He looked at me with a big smile and told me he would package up 700 grams of his personal stuffing for my chapon and that I should come to pick it up on Christmas Eve morning. He also told me just how to cook Mr. Bird (well-stuffed and well-sewn): 4 hours in the oven starting at 100 degrees (C) and gradually increasing the temperature to 160 degrees (C) - never higher! (with big insistent eyes). He also recommended basting (same verb for 'watering' in French) the bird every 10 minutes over the four hours if possible. (I managed every 15). I walked out with a huge smile on my face and felt special to experience a pick-me-up from our local butcher. He's been the butcher in this town for 40 years - he knows his stuff. Plus, his shop is so festive and full of cheer. Meticulously decorated for Christmas.
That night, with my stuffing in hand, I unwrapped Mr. Bird with my brother-in-law Fabien. Fabien generally cooks for the Joly family - he is more enthusiastic and generally a better cook than the rest of us (his mother is a supreme cook, and happened to be one of our guests for the following day's meal). I was actually charmed to find an integral bird. His head, all of his parts - everything there. He looked almost as if he were simply sleeping. We all introduced ourselves to him and thanked him for being our Christmas meal in advance.
Then we cut off his head and started pulling out what was in his cavity. Heart, liver, kidneys. But no intestines, etc. So this bird had been properly cleaned and gutted and the good parts had been reinserted like a gift box. We added the liver to the stuffing (which was a mash of meat, herbs and spices) and Fabien suggested mixing in gingerbread for a Christmas twist. We stuffed that 4.5 kg bird full. Then I took on sewing him up. It was tough, literally. We wrapped him back up and put him back to sleep in the fridge.
Early Christmas morning I prepared the bouillon for basting and let him bathe in that hot bath for 30 minutes before beginning the baking process. He turned out to be delicious - accompanied by roasted vegetables (turnips, beets, carrots, squash), chestnuts and roasted apples. Even Fabien's mother (who brought her homemade fois gras for the regalement) gave honeyed compliments. Hooray for the Christmas Chapon!