Ruling the roost with a simple French dish

By Natalie Evans-Freke

Our intrepid foodie finds a perfect rendition of peasant cuisine, coq qu vin, in a tiny village in southern France.

Jennifer Henriksen and Julien Lavandet from restaurant Table de Julien. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jennifer Henriksen and Julien Lavandet from restaurant Table de Julien. Photo / Babiche Martens

Coq qu vin. When it comes to French food it is one of the most iconic dishes - along with red wine, cheese and snails. And so, during my recent stay in the tiny hillside village of St Maximin in Languedoc, I went in search of coq au vin authentique and found it in a magical little restaurant by the name of Table de Julien.

I wasn't actually lost on the day I stuck my head around the kitchen door. I had actually dined in this chic, cave-like eating establishment the night before and was hunting around to thank the owners Julien Lavandet and Jennifer Henriksen for the experience - an indulgent few hours that began with foie gras on toast and ended in something deliciously hard to pronounce.

The kitchen is shockingly small. How did such delicious food come from such a space? And how young are Julien and Jennifer?

With a friendly laugh, and in better English than most people around here speak, Jennifer explains they opened the restaurant five years ago and have been booked out weeks in advance ever since.

In that time, Jennifer has cautiously carried down the narrow stairs every entree, main and dessert ever created by her chef partner.

When I ask Jennifer what she thinks makes this place so special, she tells me that it is a combination of food and atmosphere. "Julien loves Mediterranean food with good vegetables and fish, but he also likes to add a foreign touch. He picked up ideas from Thailand and the Caribbean so he uses spices from there, which is different for French people, as they like sweet and salty foods. However, all our dishes are based on classic French cuisine."

We are now sitting at the small bar directly above the restaurant and right next to the kitchen. It is one of those typical European places that always has a few locals sitting there reading the paper and drinking something you've never heard of. The contrast between the fine dining downstairs and the super-relaxed bar up here is refreshing. When I ask her why they chose this area for their restaurant she explains that Julien grew up in nearby Uzes and when she first came here she fell in love with the region.

"We were looking to open in Uzes but St Maximin seemed right in the end. It is very quiet here but still so close to Uzes."

Jennifer says Julien is shy, and cooking great food is a way for him to have contact with everyone. So I am thrilled when he offers to share the secrets of cooking the famous French peasant dish coq au vin.

The next day we travel down the road to the local chicken farm and photograph Julien and Jennifer with "le coq" for the Viva cover. (For the actual recipe below, Julien used another bird professionally prepared for cooking.)

Back in the kitchen Jennifer shares what it is like working with her husband all day.

"Really it's quite easy. I know that I cannot do Julien's job in the kitchen and he knows he can't do my job in the restaurant. I am very proud of what he is cooking, so I work hard to put a good light on to his dishes and his passion".

Our chatter ends when Julien begins to furiously pluck the feathers out of the bird while spiritedly talking about the classic way of preparing the dish.

"It is traditional in France to cook the coq in its own blood. However, the French rules no longer allow this. Instead we use a very good wine from the region to add more flavour.

"Fresh produce is also very important. Carrots, onions, herbs ... the fresher the better!"

While the bird is in the oven, Julien tells me that he started out as a sandwich maker in Uzes before getting a seasonal job in summer that allowed him to go abroad in winter.

Other than Thailand and the Caribbean, he has also worked in Ireland, Scotland and St Barthelemy.

A few hours later the young family deliver the finished dish of coq au vin to our house down the road. The aromas and colours of the dish, truly reminiscent of blood in its deep redness, tell me instantly why this French peasant dish has become a household name all over the world.

Under the pink-grazed skies of early autumn, we enjoy the dish with a good local red from Domaine Chabrier Fils.

It is true that France holds many good eateries, but from my experience, finding something outstanding yet without the hefty euro price tag is no easy feat. At Table de Julien you can eat three courses for about 40 euros.

If you're in the area and want to give French cuisine a go, I suggest a visit to Table de Julien - a reminder that good things often happen when young minds have their say on tradition.

* Viva photographer Babiche Martens flew Cathay Pacific to France. Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Paris, via Hong Kong. Special Business and Economy Class fares are available to Paris.

- NZ Herald

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