I don’t currently keep chickens, because of deed restrictions in my family’s subdivision. My soon-to-be father-in-law, however, has a nice little property unencumbered by rules against poultry (or any other livestock, for that matter), and he’s been keeping chickens for the last year or so. He’s done it the old-fashioned way: hatching them himself and raising them to laying age. He even kept a rooster around to produce a second generation of layers.
Recently, though, the rooster became something of a problem. He had always been a bit mean, as most roosters are. You had to watch your back going into the chicken coop, or he’d fly at you and try to spur you in the face. I took to carrying a big stick anytime I went to collect eggs. All this was a bit of a nuisance, but a tolerable price to pay for future chicks. But, then, the rooster started beating up on the ladies. He pecked some of their backs completely bare of feathers. And then, a few weeks ago, he killed one of them.
Well, that was it, said daddy-in-law. As much as it pained him, Mr. Cock-a-doodle-doo was going to have to go.
And I, always on the lookout for a way to make my diet more local and more fresh, volunteered to do the dirty work. And share the coq au vin.
I’ve had a little experience butchering chickens, from raising a flock of broilers a few years ago. And most of the process was exactly the same as before: hanging him by his feet, slitting the throat, waiting until he was completely dead and bled out, then dunking in a pot of 145-degree water to loosen the feathers for plucking. The big differences were at the beginning and the end of the process.
At the beginning, of course, it was necessary to catch him. That can be difficult with all chickens, but usually it’s because they’re too skittish to let you get close (not so stupid, these chickens!). With this guy, the difficulty was that he was actually dangerous.
So I sent my fiance after him.
(I gave him a pair of thick, heatproof gloves my dad uses to rearrange logs on the fire.)
After enduring a couple of flying spur attacks, my man decided that he was never going to be able to just grab the rooster by the legs, even with the gloves I’d given him. Not if he wanted to keep his face intact. So he grabbed a nearby shovel. And hit the rooster on the head. Hard enough to daze him and give us time to tie his ankles.
Once the rooster was slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated, and rested for a day in the fridge, the question was how to cook him. I knew that old birds (and old birds are generally anything over 3 or 4 months) are tougher than younger ones. Fortunately, in the Joy of Cooking recipe for coq au vin, I found instructions for tenderizing an old bird: after disjointing, bake in a covered cast-iron pot on a bed of bacon for 45 minutes at 250 degrees. So I did just that. And then I continued with the recipe for coq au vin: sauteing vegetables (including leeks from our winter garden), browning the chicken pieces, adding herbs and of course a delicious dry red wine. It smelled like heaven simmering on the stove for the next hour. By the time we sat down to dinner, I was ready to devour our exemplary local cuisine.
The only thing was…it tasted…awful.
I may have overcooked it. That might account for the lingering toughness. Maybe he was a particularly tough old bird, too. And maybe getting hit on the head with a shovel made him tense up a bit more than he would have otherwise.
But it wasn’t just the toughness. There was a very strange aroma and taste to this bird. Nothing like the deliciousness of the ones I’d raised and eaten before.
So what could it be? Well, I wonder if it might not have had something to do with the really large testicles I pulled out of that bird–about twenty times the size of the ones in the younger birds I’ve slaughtered. I think I may have read somewhere that the hormones of an adult rooster affect its taste…. Besides tenderness, that’s why you want to butcher broilers while they’re young and immature.
So my question to you is…do any of you know anything about this? I thought that, because the French had a special recipe for “rooster in red wine” (that’s the literal translation of coq au vin), mature old roosters could be made palatable. But is that just a myth?