CHAMPAGNE MEMORIES – PART #2
AN ITALIAN STORY
Saturday morning. Lying in bed trying to read as husband, buried under rumpled sheets and a pile of blankets, head nestled, half concealed, in a mountain of pillows, mirth sparkling in his eyes, starts his usual chain-of-thought silly prattling, on and on, mixing archeology, anthropology, history, old has-been French singers, ridiculous American film stars, Boston Terriers and pretty much anything and everything that pops into his head. Just for fun, just to relieve the tension of another week at work. A lovely, lazy “grasse matinée”, biding the time until one of us is ready to let Marty loose from his cage to join us.
My book is eventually closed and placed back on my bedside table, glasses removed and laughter fills the air. I join in for a while, until we head towards more sane ground and our plans for the day. “After you walk Marty, will you walk to the market with me?” “What do you need at the market?” he asks. Well, the day before I had bought a lovely pear-shaped bottle of Cremant de Loire, our own local sparkling wine, Champagne’s own sister, and Champagne Chicken was on the menu tonight.
“Aha! Chicken and Champagne! Did I ever tell you the story of Signore V and Pollo e Champagne?” he asked. “Well, here is a true and oh-so typical Italian story!”
It was a catastrophe in the making. Throughout the 1950’s chickens in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe, I should add), along with their farmyard friends, were pumped full of hormones, estrogen in particular, in order to plump them up, give them the voluptuous curves of a Botticelli Venus, endow them with the large breasts and meaty hips of a Fellini starlet, making them more attractive, I imagine, to all those mamme and nonne standing at butcher counters from Balzano down to Lecce, passing by Milano, Firenze and Roma, deciding on which cut of meat would make the best secondo, meat course, for their preziosi bambini, their adorati mammoni, their cari sposi.
But sadly, as it turned out, it wasn’t only the chickens who were affected by the hormones. Studies began emerging (a Swiss study) linking estrogen-plumped chicken to strange developments, namely children developing breasts.* So, in true Italian style and ever protective of their darling bambini, as soon as the first schoolyard whispers of this connection leaked out followed by screaming headlines, Italy went, pun intended, “cold turkey”. The entire country just stopped eating chicken overnight. An entire country’s chicken producers panicked, and, fearing tremendous financial losses, began simply running around like chickens without their heads! What to do to save the industry? So they turned to the then President of the Italian Association of Poultry Producers (Signore V, who, some 20 or so years later recounted this story to JP) and desperately begged him to do something to stop the madness!
So, the representatives of Italy’s Poultry Producers put their heads together and, in great flamboyant Italian style, came up with a brilliant idea which would, without a doubt, save the chicken market. They hopped into their Fiats and off they sped towards Milan where they, and yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard it here first, they commissioned a music producer to find a team of writers and musicians to write a song about – chicken.
Well, needless to say, their crazy plan worked! The producer at Edizione Kramer hired the team of Dino Verde and Bruno Canfora to write the words and music, he gave the song to Le Gemelle Kessler (The Kessler Twins), lovely, leggy German twin sisters, all dolled up in 60’s Italian TV camp black fishnet stockings, skimpy outfits and top hats and turned all of those crazy scientific studies on their heads, outdid the scientists themselves in true San Remo style. They soon had the entire country singing along to a catchy new song. Youth on their Vespas sped through the streets of Rome and Florence whistling the jazzy tune while nonne e nonni everywhere watched (or ogled) – and hummed along with – the new singing sensation, the Kessler sisters, on tv and their new hit single
Chicken was now the new sexy. Paired with Champagne and enjoyed, savored in the glamorous city of Paris after a romantic stroll, arm in arm, with a lover through the streets of the City of Lights, to the très chic Bois de Boulogne, chicken became something desired rather than feared, something romantic to eat sitting in a sidewalk café while sipping Champagne, the nec plus ultra of Parisian elegance and chic sophistication. Gone was the terror of serving dangerous chemical-laden chicken to your family and with one little swingy song, a kick or two of those gorgeous legs, a few twists of those shapely bodies and flips of those adorable blond heads, chicken and champagne became all the rage and chicken was, once again, back in style.
Well, some forty years later and here we are, lying in bed and thinking of chicken. And Champagne. Well, I’ve strolled through the streets of Paris with a handsome French lover, I’ve nibbled on chicken in the most elegant of Parisian bistros, I’ve sipped Champagne in a stunning Parisian Palace hotel bedroom, but nothing beats cooking in my own kitchen and dining on a delectable meal with my own Frenchman in my own home – with or without the fishnet stockings, skimpy outfit and top hat. Unless they have been requested. But I draw the line at singing and dancing.
Corks are popped to celebrate everything from marriages to births to graduations. Flutes are filled on birthdays and anniversaries. Business deals are sealed with a toast of the old bubbly and ships christened with a bottle of the stuff. Celebrations, holidays and rites of passage are all seen in and cheered with France’s own legendary sparkling wine. And who among us can tell a tale of romance, the story of our one great love without mentioning the popping of a cork, the sizzling of the bubbles, the ticking of glass on glass, the sipping of this most potent of love potions, this magic brew? Our own region, the Loire, has her own sparkling wine, the pale color and jewel-like shimmer of Champagne, deliciously light and fruity with hints of hazelnut, almond and vanilla, as smooth as satin, delicate and elegant in the mouth. In a country where wine is king and Champagne is queen, no region in France is without her dish blending the best of her own local ingredients, whether meats or fish and seafood, fruits or vegetables, with the best of her local wines. And Champagne Chicken is one such dish, equally homey and elegant, sweet and earthy, delicious.
I would like to add this to my stunning and astonishing Scallops in Champagne Cream Sauce and send it to Meeta who is hosting this month’s Monthly Mingle on her wonderful 4-year-old blog What’s For Lunch Honey? To celebrate her blogoversary, Meeta has requested everyone cook or bake this month with Champagne.
Adapted from a version of this traditional recipe found in Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook
2 whole boneless chicken breasts, skin, trimmed, rinsed, patted dry, each sliced into 2 thin escalopes
½ cup (about 60 g) flour
½ tsp salt plus more if needed
Freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs (45 g) butter, margarine or half butter or margarine and olive oil
2/3 cup (150 ml) Champagne brut or another sparkling wine (I used Cremant de Loire blanc)
Juice of 1 lime
½ lb (250 g) white mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
Season the flour with the salt and a very generous grinding of black pepper and put in a large bowl or soup dish. Dredge the 4 chicken escalopes in the seasoned flour until well coated, shake off the excess flour and set aside on a clean plate.
Heat a non-reactive 10-inch (25 cm) skillet over medium heat and add the butter or margarine and the olive oil. Sauté the chicken until well browned on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and return to plate while you prepare the mushrooms and the sauce.
Lower the heat under the skillet to medium-low and add the limejuice and the Champagne. The liquids will sizzle and boil up briefly; scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan then continue simmering the liquid for a few minutes to allow the alcohol to burn off.
Add the mushrooms and the nutmeg to the Champagne and limejuice and stir until the nutmeg is distributed and the mushrooms are under the liquid. Lower the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms are soft and the sauce reduces by about a third.
Return the chicken to the skillet and push the pieces down into the sauce. Allow to simmer for 5 to 8 minutes longer until the chicken is heated through. Salt and pepper to taste if desired.
* As a result of these studies, all meat in Europe is now hormone-free.