February 15, 2015
I don’t need to tell you about the blizzard going on outside my Cape Cod windows right now. What you need to know about is this slow-roasted chicken from Catalonia. It means three hours in a house full of the smells of rosemary, thyme, lemon, and garlic, not to mention fennel, bay leaves, stick cinnamon, and brandy.
While my memory of this chicken is all Mediterranean sunshine, the reality is I ate it on a day that did not inspire one of my “Why do I live in Boston instead of Barcelona?” jags.
I ate it with Ed, after a day of driving around the windblown Priorat region, southwest of Barcelona, where we found wineries shut tight against the cold and where we were turned away from the critics’ favorite lunch place with a thin-lipped “We’re full, you should have reserved.” We straggled back to the Penedès, where we knew Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, the capital of Cava, would be bustling even on a winter afternoon.
There, Fonda Neus did not exactly beckon. We sat down in a beige dining room and looked at the everyday menu. At least the place was quietly busy—and it smelled good. “You’ll have the chicken,” said the proprietress.
By the time we had sopped up the last of the juices on our plates we had forgotten about our not-so-romantic surroundings. I always tell wine lovers who visit Barcelona to go to the Penedès (here's my advice). The winding roads through vine-covered hills, the glimpses of the sea, and the underground caves where old-school Cavas are made are all beautiful. But the winemaking towns here are plain.
We asked Neus why this chicken was so different from every other we had known. She told us about the local birds, the herbs, and the wines she favored. But mostly, she said, it came down to slow roasting in a cassola—a round clay baking dish with sloped sides. Turning it from side to side in the juices that gather in the bottom of the cassola gives a bird roasted this way a luxurious basting.
What made that chicken heady in a way we couldn’t quite identify was brandy, which Neus combined with Cava to jazz the pan juices. The Penedès is not only where Spain’s best Cavas come from—some very good brandies are made here, too. Something like a Torres Imperial Brandy 10 will give this dish real sex appeal and do the same for your after-dinner conversation all winter long for about $20.
Here, too, is the home town of a certain chicken, the Gall del Penedès. This breed lays chocolate-brown eggs, has a carnation-shaped comb, and holds a place on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. And even though its charcoal-colored legs look dubious dangling from market birds, the locals go especially bonkers over the gall negre, a black-plumed variety.
The picture above, taken by María Rosa Ferré, won first place at the last Fira del Gall, the chicken festival held in the town of Vilafranca every December. Her prize was one black Penedès chicken, killed and plucked, plus two bottles of d.o. Penedès wine: instructive, I guess, as to the proper proportions recommended for this dinner. Potatoes, slow-roasted alongside the chicken, are all you need on the side.
Slow-Roasted Penedès Chicken
1 4-lb. chicken, on the large side for a free-ranging farmer’s market bird
1 fresh lemon, halved
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 small head garlic, cut in half crosswise
1 big handful of rosemary and thyme branches, marjoram too, if you have it
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup Cava or crisp, unoaked white wine
1 shot (2 tablespoons) brandy
Set the bird in a cassola or roasting pan and let it come to room temperature for an hour or so. Also, if your wine is cold, pour what you need for the roast now too.
Heat oven to 300 F.
Pat the chicken dry, remove the giblets (sear the liver for yourself as a snack, but toss the neck, gizzard, and heart into the baking dish so they can flavor the drippings), and rub the chicken with the lemon halves, squeezing their juice all over the bird, inside and out. Massage on a good drizzle of olive oil.
Combine the salt, paprika, and crushed fennel seeds in a small bowl. Sprinkle about a third of it inside the cavity and smear the rest onto the skin.
Push one of your squeezed-out lemon halves into the bird and leave the other half in the baking dish. Do the same with the garlic, putting one half into the bird, the other in the pan. Stuff the herb branches into the bird. Set the bay leaves and cinnamon stick into the pan.
Nestle the chicken on its side, situating the cinnamon stick, the garlic half, the gizzard, and any extra herb branches beneath and around it as needed to shore it up. No need to truss—its legs will cross politely in this position.
Roast the bird for a total of three hours, turning it every 30 minutes.
Do one side, then the other, then after that first hour, add the Cava or white wine to the pan. Go side to side again, and at the two hour mark add the brandy to the pan juices. Give the chicken a half-hour turn breast side down. Then, finally, roast it breast side up for the last half hour.
The roasting is not a precision thing, but basting the bird in its juices is important. I use a timer, lest my high-temperature, do-nothing (except clean up grease later) roasting habits take over. If you have a Catalan cassola, the juices run down the sloped sides and just turning the bird takes care of the basting. If you’re using an ordinary flat-bottomed casserole, brush the pan juices over the bird each time you turn it.