We had a dinner party last week.
I mean, sure, instead of a perfectly clean and tidy house my husband was still madly hoovering up the lounge when people arrived. And yes, it’s true that we saved on toastmaster fees by getting our toddler to do it instead by running round in only a nappy, gleefully screaming at guests and trying to push them over. As for ballgowns and bowties? Unfortunately as all mine were at the dry cleaners or something I had to make do with a 2 day old top of dubious odour and jeans that were so snug I spent half the evening with the button undone – before eating. But damnit, I’m still calling it a dinner party.
Luckily our friends aren’t nobs, and fully expected this to be the case. They mucked in with the cleaning and manfully refrained from shoving the toddler back and not one of them turned up wearing a ballgown. It was all very harmonious and then I said, “tonight’s meal is going on the blog.”
Lots of silence. I think one of them went, “oh?” in a sort of quiet fear.
“No, no, it’s all okay!” I panicked, “I picked one that wasn’t too out there, in terms of ingredients, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t taste nice.”
“So what is it?”
“Boiled chicken -“
“Oh for fu-“
“After the French Fashion”, I interrupted triumphantly. “It has to be good if it’s French, right?”
“It’s okay, we can get a takeaway later,” someone muttered to their partner.
Boiled Chicken after the French Fashion was a Tudor dish from Thomas Dawson’s The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin which I’d found in Terry Breverton’s book The Tudor Cookbook. I really wasn’t kidding when I said I’d tried to pick something that would appeal to modern day tastes but was still dinner party worthy and despite it’s anaemic sounding name, it fit the criteria perfectly. In fact it was delicious.
Okay, was it truly representative of a Tudor feast? No. But I had limited time and resources to work with so although I’d had every intention of making the 1516 dish Live Blackbird, Rabbit, Frog, Dog or Dwarf Pie, where live animals, and I guess people (!), were sealed into a pre-baked pie crust before jumping out to the delight of the king and his courtiers, I found getting hold of enough dogs to fill it adequately was difficult. Also, the meal I had prepared was just one dish, but by royal Tudor standards that was basically peasant fare. For example, over the course of just 3 days Lacey Baldwin Smith tells us that Elizabeth I’s court ate: 67 sheep, 34 pigs, 4 stags, 16 bucks, 1,200 chickens, 363 capons, 33 geese, 6 turkeys, over 1000 pigeons, almost 3000 eggs, 430 lbs of butter and a cartload of oysters. In earlier years, Henry VIII, (well known for his restraint when it came to meals) was said to have frequently spent £1520 a year on food for the royal household. In today’s money that’s approximately £860,000. In comparison, as my husband pointed out, I was offering guests unseasoned chicken with a 60p bag of curly kale and a couple of boxes of Matchmakers for dessert. Do you think Henry VIII would have found that a behead-able offence?
Still, I was determined that this would be a success. Dawson’s recipe asks cooks to quarter an unknown quantity of whole chickens and add them to a pan of white wine at a rate of 1 pint of wine per 2 chickens. Maths wasn’t my strongest subject at school and my determination wavered as I had flashbacks of trying to work out the fairest payment plan if Paul, Danny and Sue bought a pack of sweets for £3.47 but split them according to a 20:33:47 ratio. (In my mind it always ended with Sue absolutely losing it, grabbing the bag and sprinting off, culminating in a ratio more representative of playground life at 0:0:100.)
Because there were 6 of us, we were hungry and I was hoping to have leftovers, I settled on 12 chicken breasts cut into thirds. Post-Roman and early medieval chickens in England were smaller than their modern day counterparts and though I expect they had grown by the time of the Tudors, I can’t find any evidence to show whether they were of a comparable size to chickens today. I estimated that 12 breasts was roughly equivalent to 3 or 4 Tudor chickens so added 2 pints of white wine to the pot. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my maths teacher cheered me on.
I added thyme, parsley and half a thumb’s worth of ginger, chopped up into as tiny pieces as I could manage, and then sliced 5 dates. This was one of the more unusual ingredients, but actually the technique of mixing exotic sweet fruits with savoury dishes was typical for the Tudor time period, especially for the rich where it was yet another opportunity to show off their wealth. It’s something that we perhaps don’t do as much now, or if we do it’s only done with specific meals, (pork and apple sauce, for example), but during the reigns of Henry VIII and his murderous offspring, it was common for cooks to use a mixture of ingredients that we might now consider almost experimental.
The dates weren’t easy to chop and ended up being more of a paste, but I added them anyway. I had one left over, which I gave to my toddler who excitedly shouted, “chocolate! chocolate!” as she ate it, so there’s a mum win for me.
The final ingredient was 6 hardboiled egg yolks. I had no idea what they were for, or whether they should be sliced, crumbled or added whole. I assumed they were to act as a thickener for the wine to turn it into more of a sauce, but couldn’t see how 6 yolks would do that on their own. Still, I dutifully chopped and added them to the pot.
I left it to simmer for about 1 and a half hours on a low heat. After a while I checked to see if the yolks had done their thing and was unsurprised to find they hadn’t. In fact, before they’d been added, this meal looked quite appetising. After their addition, however, it had turned a sort of creamy grey colour, still the thickness of water only now with lumps of rubbery yolk bobbing on the surface like deformed bath ducks. In order to salvage the appearance of the meal, and not to be blacklisted from any dinner parties ever again, I mixed in a tablespoon of flour to make up for the lacklustre thickening efforts of the egg yolks. Other than this addition, everything else was as the recipe intended.
Once the liquid resembled a silky looking white sauce and less like Satan’s bathwater, I added some salt and cinnamon and “served it forth” along with some distinctly un-Tudor mustard mash and greens. It’s a myth that the Tudors added spices to rotting meat to disguise the disgusting taste; spices like cinnamon, which became popular during the reign of Elizabeth I, were so expensive that their presence in recipes indicates that the chef could definitely have afforded good quality meat. It would have been more than it was worth to a royal chef to use up rotting meat for the king or queen, and so as with the dates the cinnamon would have been an exciting way to show off relatively unusual ingredients and wealth.
It. Was. Amazing.
The chicken was tender and had just started flaking and the alcohol had cooked away to leave a rich fruity flavour behind. It was sweeter than any other savoury sauce I’d had before thanks to the dates, but the salt and herbs stopped it from tipping too far. Despite what I thought was quite a lot of ginger at the time, it wasn’t spicy at all. I thought I could detect the hint of cinnamon in a warming way, but whether or not that was because I knew it was in there was unclear; some people could taste it and others, (inferior guests, in my opinion), couldn’t. The addition of flour helped the overall attractiveness of it, but I can see that even without it it would still taste good, just maybe more broth like.
My fear had been that people would try it and go quiet, suddenly remembering that they’d actually eaten recently already, or that they were trying to lose weight for January. But in reality, every plate was cleared! In fact, there was only a small portion left by the end, enough for lunch later in the week.
This dinner party might not have been quite as sophisticated as Mary Berry’s, or as showy as the Tudor’s but in the end it was very us – and not a frog, dog or dwarf was harmed in the making of it.