The French are big on braising. It’s a technique used to soften tough cuts of meat, which are often the most flavorful ones (and least-expensive), and traditionally, the ones French people liked to eat. But also during tough times, cooks would bring pots of food to their local bakers, who keep their ovens going while they were baking bread, and for a few coins they’d have them slow cook, or braise, their dinner for them. The iconic “P” in Poilâne bread is a nod to a similar tradition of people bringing their unbaked loaves of bread to a communal oven, and people would slash a mark in their loaves, or their initial, so they would know whose bread was whose, once all the loaves were baked.
But I’m not sure this dish has roots in France. I haven’t seen many references to “harvester’s chicken with grapes” in France. A few searches for poulet vendageur aux raisins turned up some not-very-encouraging results. So it may be something invented by someone who romanticized something that’s less-than-glamorous, namely, grape-picking. But who likes chicken very much and decided to pair it with a big bunch of grapes, like I did.
I’ve picked grapes a few times and after about 15 minutes in the hot sun of southern France, I was ready to call it a day and pop open a bottle of rosé, and drink it in the shade. I can peel apples for hours, segment oranges until the cows come home, and roll pastry like a champ. But picking grapes is very hard work.
Even if you’re not a vendangeur, or vendangeuse, or live in a grape-picking region, you can make this during other seasons, as long as there are grapes. Or if you live in part of the world where you have plenty of grapes to choose from at the moment, because the seasons are reversed from the other hemisphere, this recipe is to include you. And we all want to be inclusive, don’t we?
So while I’m happy to support the people who make wine by drinking—and eating—the fruits of their labors, when shopping for what to eat with some of the many bottles of wine I have tucked around my apartment, at my outdoor market the other day I chanced upon some plump, dark grapes and wanted to indulge myself in a braised chicken dish with morsels of smoked bacon and juicy raisins, as the French would say. And this is the result. (Not shown: Wine alongside.)
Seedless grapes are rare in France, and most people don’t mind the seeds. (Although they seem to be a little more refined about getting them out of their mouth than I am.) Wherever you are, find a grape variety that tastes good, if you can. In the U.S., Concord or Niagara grapes are very flavorful, or muscat. Of course, since this is a wine harvester’s meal, any grapes used for making wine are appropriate. But you could use Red Globe-style grapes, and count on the bacon-powered braising liquid to give them a boost of flavor.
I did try this dish with seedless grapes, and vastly preferred the dish made with unseeded ones. Not just because I like to make a fool of myself trying to get grape seeds out of my mouth not-so-discreetly, much to the amusement of my French dining companions, who wonder if I was raised by animals and rescued by my parents when I was twelve. But I found the halved, seeded grapes got lost in the sauce.
(For the record: Emily Post said, when asked how you should remove food from your mouth, like seeds and fish bones: “With the same utensil that you used to put the food into your mouth.” Which makes sense, although grape seeds are a little tough, unless the tines of your fork are very close together, unlike mine.)
While we’re being honest, I like this dish the same day it’s made (above), but it’s even better rewarmed after it’s had time to sit in the flavorful sauce. I rewarm it in a shallow gratin-type dish with some of the sauce, for about twenty minutes in a 375ºF/190ºC oven, until it’s heated through and browned on top. Adding enough sauce at the start so the chicken pieces are halfway submerged is the right place to begin when reheating it. A quick flash under the broiler at the end will give the chicken pieces a nicer color. And if you’re anything like me – and I hope for the sake of your friends, you’re not when trying to extract grape seeds from your mouth, without drawing undue attention to yourself – you tend to watch things in the oven like a hawk, so do cook/broil the chicken pieces until they’re nicely browned, just the way you like them, with a simmering pool of the wine- and bacon-flavored sauce surrounding everything.
Wine Harvester's Chicken
- 1 whole chicken, cut into 6 or 8 pieces, or 4 thighs cut in half (see headnote)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a tablespoon or more for frying the bacon
- 1 cup (150g) diced, thick-cut bacon
- 3 shallots, minced, or 1 small onion, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 cups (375ml) dry white wine
- 1 1/2 cups (375ml) chicken stock
- 1/4 cup (60ml) red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Two 1-inch (3cm) strips fresh orange zest
- 10 branches fresh thyme, (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme)
- 10 allspice berries, lightly crushed
- 2 cups (315g) stemmed grapes
- Season chicken with salt and let sit overnight in the refrigerator. (This step isn't imperative, but does make the meat more succulent.)
- Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven, large, wide casserole, or roasting pan, that has a lid.
- Sear chicken piece so they are brown on both sides, about 5 to 8 minutes per side. Depending on the size of your Dutch oven or casserole, you may need to do them in batches. Remove pieces of chicken to a bowl once they're browned.
- Preheat oven to 350ºF/175ºC.
- Saute the bacon in the pot. If necessary, add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Stir the bacon until it's mostly cooked, then add the shallots or onion and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions are translucent, about 2 minutes.
- Add the wine, stock and vinegar to the pot, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper, orange zest, thyme, and allspice. Put the chicken pieces in the pot, skin side down, cover and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the oven. Turn the chicken pieces over, so they're skin side up. Bake, uncovered, adding the grapes to the pot midway during cooking, until the liquid in the pot is thick and reduced to the point where the chicken pieces are about halfway submerged in sauce, and the chicken is browned. (About 30 to 45 minutes.)