The grape reigns supreme in French alcohol, whether fermented into the nation’s storied wines or distilled into Cognac or Armagnac. But equally deserving of our love and attention are those beverages containing apples at their core.
For the best examples, look to Normandy, in the northwest of the country. The region’s crisp, funky ciders offer complex sessionability, while the distilled and aged counterpart, Calvados, shares Cognac’s fruitiness but arguably lands more vibrant on the palate.
As tends to be the case in France, these beverages have worked their way into a classic local dish: poulet Vallée d’Auge. Think of it as Normandy’s answer to coq au vin or beef Bourguignon. A simple, hearty braise, the chicken dish gives apple the starring role, with the fruit included in fresh, cider, and Calvados forms. Preparation has the added bonus of theater, with the spirit flambéed when added to the pan to form the base of the sauce.
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To further highlight the presence of cider and Calvados, we can apply some tweaks to the traditional preparation of the dish. Many recipes contain similar trimmings to the aforementioned coq au vin and beef Bourguignon, such as bacon lardons and mushrooms. While unarguably delicious, these ingredients can hijack the dish and distract from the clean, fruity flavors of the liquor and cider.
Subbing in celery and fennel makes up for the loss of two savory ingredients and, it could be reasoned, closer aligns with the profile of apples. And finishing with a sprinkling of fresh sage brings everything together and delivers the culinary equivalent of turning leaves falling from autumn trees.
Calvados and Cider Chicken Recipe
Serves 4 to 6
- 8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin on
- 1 large onion, diced
- ¼ head of celery, peeled and chopped into ½-inch pieces
- 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into 8 wedges each
- 1 pound apples, cored and cut into 12 wedges each
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup Calvados
- 2 ½ cups French cider, preferably from Normandy
- ¼ cup crème fraîche
- 3 leaves fresh sage, finely chopped
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Pat the chicken dry with kitchen paper and season with salt and pepper.
- Heat two tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven or large skillet over a medium-high heat. Sear the chicken on both sides and remove when golden and crispy.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add two more tablespoons of oil. Add the onions, celery, fennel, and apples, and sauté for 10 minutes until soft. Stir occasionally to avoid burning or sticking. Add the garlic and sauté another minute.
- In a separate pan, gently warm the Calvados over medium heat. Carefully light the liquor using a long match, and ensure nothing in the vicinity is flammable. Cook until the flame subsides, then pour into the pan with vegetables. Once again, be careful here as the Calvados could reignite if all alcohol wasn’t initially burned off.
- Add cider to the pan containing vegetables and Calvados and boil over a medium heat until the liquid has reduced by half.
- Add chicken to the pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover with a lid and cook for 35 to 40 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure the liquid is simmering and none of the vegetables have caught on the bottom of the pan.
- When the chicken is cooked through and tender to the bone, remove using tongs and set aside.
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer all vegetables to a warm serving platter. Place chicken on top.
- Stir crème fraîche into the braising liquid and bring to a simmer. If the sauce hasn’t reached a light, creamy consistency, increase the heat and boil for a few minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add finely chopped sage. Pour over the chicken and vegetables.
- Serve with a side of fresh crusty bread or boiled new potatoes.