Chicken with Olives
Pollo con le Olive
I knew a man once, a difficult man he was, but his mother who - it must be said – was fairly difficult too, made the best Pollo con Le Olive that I have ever tasted.
I only once saw her smile and that was when we reached for second helpings of her chicken with olives.
Variations of this dish – chicken pieces braised with wine and olives – are found throughout mainland Italy, often with the addition of tomatoes, onions and chilli, amongst other things. Commonly referred to as Pollo alla Cacciatora, which means hunter’s chicken, it is a method of cooking also employed with rabbit. It is one of the nicest ways to cook both of these white meats, as it imbues their sweet and delicate flesh with a gamey depth and intensity of flavour, creating a wonderfully balanced and delicious contrast. Whatever the infinite variations, the core ingredients are indisputable: meat, rosemary, garlic, wine and olives.
The hunter, of course, would provide the rabbit or bird, and probably the rosemary too, which he would have plucked from an obliging hedgerow on his way home from the hunt. The wine was probably homemade, the olives rudely fished from their brine, where they had been floating happily in a large green jar in the cool darkness of a dank cellar.
This version, which is truly Sardinian in its Spartan nature, has no onions in the base, no carrots, no celery. The depth of flavour is instead provided by a few herbs, the intensely savoury flavour given by the browning of the meat (skin on), the punch of garlic, the musk of reduced wine and the bitter-sweet saltiness of olives.
This is the kind of dish that you’ll want to make in your favourite casserole pot, or saute pan; deep enough for sauce, wide enough for browning meat. The kind of pan/pot that is stained brown at the sides from such braises, the kind of pan that travels happily from oven to table.
The only accompaniments you need are a crust of good bread, a glass of simple, rough wine, and – I hope – a smile.
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 chicken legs/thighs/pieces, anything but breasts (said the Bishop)
2 garlic cloves, skinned and halved
2 glasses of dry white wine (about)
1 sprig of rosemary
A few leaves of sage
A sprig or two of parsley (optional)
A handful of green olives (in brine)
1 tbsp olive brine
Salt, to taste
Note: This is not a precise recipe. It’s the sort of recipe where you have to be a little open minded about things as it all depends on your chicken, your pot, your wine. Some chickens (normally battery ones) will release a lot of juice as they cook, some won’t. Bear in mind that you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
Heat the oil in a saute pan over a medium heat. Add the chicken pieces and the garlic pieces and brown them evenly all over. You will need to keep an eye on both, keeping them moving so they don’t become too brown. Aim for a nice, even, golden colour on both garlic and chicken. If the garlic cloves become too brown, remove them and add them in again when you add the wine.
Meanwhile, chop the parsley, rosemary and sage finely.
Once the chicken pieces are brown add the chopped herbs to the pan and allow them to sizzle for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the wine, allow it to simmer for a minute, then place the lid on the pot and turn the heat down to low.
After 20 minutes, check the pan. If the liquid has reduced significantly, add a little more wine or a splash of water.
Replace the lid and continue cooking for another 15-20 minutes.
Check the chicken is cooked through, it should be just falling away from the bone, and then remove the lid and add the olives and the brine (if your chicken is still not cooked, replace the lid and continue to cook for another 10 minutes before adding the olives). Reduce the liquid until you have a sticky gravy. Test for seasoning, add salt if necessary, and serve.
This, like so many things, is even better the second day.