This year has been the coldest winter in the Cape in the six years I have been living here. I live in the Southern hemisphere and therefore don’t really have anything to complain about, yet every year the onset of winter takes me by surprise. I am amazed at how the cold changes my personality – I immediately become much more introverted, slow-moving and unexpectedly grumpy, like a desperate little animal preparing for hibernation, seeking only the warmth of its burrow. The only consolation I can think of is to seek out dishes that not only bring warmth and comfort, but galvanise me to not become too disheartened by the slow turn of the solstice.
Foremost of these are the comforting dishes of childhood. I am lucky that one of these was the classic Provençal dish Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. After a gastronomically significant trip to the South of France in the early 1980s, my mother returned with blue and white enamel plates from my Vietnamese aunt, little green tumblers for drinking red wine and a Romertӧpf. This rustic relic of the 1970s transformed our cooking and changed our Sunday chicken to a fragrant and succulent dish. An oval caramel-coloured clay pot with a lid, cooking with a Romertӧpf is based on the ancient Roman practice of baking meats encased in clay. Before using it, it’s soaked in warm water, ensuring the contents stay wonderfully moist. I love using it, to this day using a Romertӧpf is still an essential part of my kitchen repertoire.
Of course, it also is such a cosy sort of object. I can’t help getting a little sentimental when it reminds me of the particular colour palette and atmosphere of the early 1980s. Everything was so brown then – the shag carpets, most people’s lounge suites, men’s jerseys, even the bamboo or wooden bowls used for serving crisps and peanuts with drinks. Mud brown crockery and beige flecked stoneware such as the (now collectable) Arabia Ruska range was all the rage. This set the scene for meals loosely inspired by blazing log fires après ski or intimate suppers around a French cottage kitchen table. And what was at the height of fashion but three classic French staples all packed with garlic: French onion soup, escargots and the ubiquitous garlic bread.
It is interesting to note that the forerunners of all this Francophilia (as derivative as it might have become) was filtered down from the 1950s and 60s by way of Elizabeth David, James Beard and Julia Child who were all responsible for introducing French cuisine to the rest of the world. Escoffier also enjoyed a bit of revival during those times with the English translation of his classic Ma Cuisine becoming a bestseller in 1965. Strangely enough Julia Child didn’t include the recipe in her landmark work Mastering the Art of French Cooking but according to food writer Robin Cherry, Beard was rather fond of surprising his students with Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. “As Betty Fusel wrote in Masters of American Cookery, in the 1950s, calling for forty cloves of garlic in a single recipe was tantamount to joining the Communist Party.” This isn’t exaggerated, in 1960s Britain garlic was considered the strangest of all the new-fangled ideas to be born out of the Free Love era. At the same time, in South Africa, my friend Kate was warned by her Catholic mother to avoid it at all costs as it fires the blood and inspires sinful thoughts or some such nonsense.
I may be a passionate alliumphile, but I must concede that not quite 40 cloves are called for: a bulb or two is perfectly adequate. This is a recipe that satisfies a rare desire – a sweet, clear and wholesome dish in different shades of golden brown. The slow cooking of the chicken (and here I must insist that it be free range: the depth of flavour is incomparable) renders a rich and glossy stock studded with golden jewels of caramelised garlic.
This is a lovely surprise for both the home cook and her diners: no one could ever believe that this copious amount of garlic wouldn’t result in an acrid, overpowering dish. But because the cloves are enclosed in protective little jackets, they don’t release the usual sharpness they would have if they had been crushed, minced or even bruised. As the garlic absorbs the lovely juices from the chicken, it mellows and becomes as soft as butter. And then, when you are ready to eat, you squeeze out the unctuous, lusciously golden insides between thumb and forefinger.
It may feel instinctive to serve this chicken with rice, but the best accompaniment is crusty French bread or sour dough toast onto which to spread the delectably unctuously golden garlic. As Nigella Lawson, who is also a fan of this dish, says: “This is a cosy supper, not a caustic one.” My version evolved from a recipe from The Art of Clay Cookery (1978) with some welcome advice from Ms Lawson, who recommends using thigh portions and adding French tarragon, one of my favourite herbs. This recipe is also a popular Passover dish as Jewish cooks say the forty cloves represent the Israelites’ forty years of wandering through the desert.
Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic
8 chicken drumsticks and thighs
2 medium red onions, cut into wedges
1 T chopped fresh tarragon leaves, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
1 cup dry white wine
Sat and white pepper, to taste
1 T chicken stock powder
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 or 2 whole bulbs (+- 10- 20 cloves) unpeeled
Soak the Romertӧpf in warm water for between 20 and 40 minutes. Meanwhile brown the chicken pieces skin side down in a wide shallow pan, being careful not to crowd them. Remove season and set aside.
In the same pan, fry the onion wedges with the bay leaves until they just start to colour. Add the wine and reduce slightly.
Remove the outer papery skin of the garlic bulbs, severing the cloves from the root. Do not peel. Add the stock, garlic and tarragon to the onions and cook for a minute or two.
Remove from the heat and pour the sauce into your Romertopf (or Dutch oven or casserole dish). Arrange the chicken pieces so that they lie on top. Add a grating of nutmeg and tuck the garlic cloves around and between the chicken pieces. Cover with the lid of the Romertӧpf or the lid of your baking dish sealed with aluminium foil to create an air-tight seal so the steam won’t escape. Make sure to place the the Romertӧpf in a cool oven (otherwise it will crack) and bake at 180 degrees for one and a half hours, without removing the lid. Once cooked, brown under the grill.
Serve with crusty baguette or sourdough toast and steamed green beans.