I like George Sand. A lot. I say this so stridently because I’ve been given a lot of flack for this affection. History has not been kind to Sand, at least here in the U.S. A massive writer in her time, perhaps the most popular, she has been reduced over the years to a character: a lady who rebelled against her rich background by wearing men’s clothes and writing romantic stories. It’s bad enough that her books have been forgotten, what’s maybe more annoying is that her influence on the later works of uncontested geniuses has also been ignored. This, frankly, has always pissed me off. While many of her contemporaries—men—if you’ll forgive this foray into feminist rant—have only grown greater in stature: Balzac, immortalized in Rodin’s bronze, erupting with genius, Flaubert, her great friend and pen pal, considered the master of the perfect sentence, Sand has diminished in grandeur, become the “lesser George,” a girl with a cigar.
In reality, George Sand was a revolutionary, feminist, economically independent, openly bisexual woman who wrote more than seventy novels, twenty four plays, and a hell of a lot more. She was admired by Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman, and so many more, including Henry James, who was a fan of her “liquid and iridescent prose.”
My favorite of her novels, Mauprat, is considered by some (me included) as the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and in many ways the books are so similar it’s hard to believe Brontë could have written her masterful book without Mauprat. Set in Varenne, it tells the story of a passionate, violent love between Bernard and Esmée, two cousins from two different houses, one serene and lovely, one haunted and damned. Like Wuthering Heights, it’s told as a reminiscence, complete with a handsome competing suitor, half-heard confessions and a break in the story while our hero runs away for a bit. There’s also thwarted rape, hermetic mystics, and a good deal of Rousseau-esque contemplation on education and society. So, you know, it’s quite fun.
Henry James called Mauprat “a solid, masterful, manly book,” (I assume he meant ‘manly’ as high praise) and so I wanted to make a dish that shared these qualities. I decided on an adaptation of Coq à la Bière (Chicken with Beer) from Anne Willan’s wonderful book French Regional Cooking. My modifications are slight, I substitute whole chicken legs for the cut up chicken and use a touch less crème fraîche. A dish straight out of the French countryside, flavored with juniper, mushrooms, and good, dark beer, it’s a hearty dish with a touch of elegance—much like our author and her characters.
Coq à la Bière (Chicken with Beer)
slight adaptation of Anne Willan’s recipe from French Regional Cooking
4 whole chicken legs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ounce butter
2 shallots, chopped
2 ounces genièvre (Willan notes that you can crush some juniper berries in gin if you don’t have genièvre. )
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 pint dark beer
8 ounces mushrooms, halved
bouquet garni (tied bundle of thyme, rosemary and bay leaves)
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add your chicken legs, in batches if necessary, and brown well on both sides. When completed, add all the legs back to the pan, lower the heat and add the shallots. Cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the genièvre and as it flares up, scrape all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Sprinkle the chicken with flour, flip them and cook for a minute, then add the beer, mushrooms, and bouquet garni, as well as some salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover, toss out the bouquet garni, as well as any excess fat, and add the crème fraîche (it can be omitted altogether, or you can add a bit more, Willan calls for 2 ounces). Bring to a boil. Serve with chopped parsley.
Serve with: roasted potatoes, couscous, rice, egg noodles
Drink: A Cab Franc from the Loire region