Boiled Chicken After The French Fashion: 1594

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.

Definitely the most vibrant and healthy looking meal so far. Luckily, this would all change

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.

Before anyone was allowed to tuck in, I had to get the perfect picture. Cue 10 minutes of my guests hiding unsightly wine glasses, adjusting the positions of the knives and forks and just generally getting out of the way. All for me to end up picking a super close up shot

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.

E x

Jumbles: 1596

In 2016 The Great British Bake Off set its contestants a Tudor technical challenge: to bake a batch of Jumbles. These sweet little doughy knots were popular in the 16th century because they used basic kitchen ingredients and were lauded as being so easy that even the most cackhanded of cooks would struggle to mess them up. This was, obviously, too tempting a challenge to ignore.

Despite having a ready made recipe in the Bake Off’s version, I wanted to do a bit of hunting to see how accurate it was. Nothing against Bake Off, but history wasn’t made by bowing to the interpretations of national institutions with armies of qualified food historians and access to every library in Britain behind them. Good historians question everything put in front of them, hoping for the moment when they can triumphantly push their glasses further up their nose, wag their finger and whine, “er, actually, I think you’ll find…”

Anyway, we can all rest easy because thanks to my dedication I can confirm that Bake Off‘s version is fairly true to the original. This means that my breakthrough history discovery is yet to come, which I’m not annoyed about at all.

The 16th century was the first time that cookery books began to be published and collected in any sort of significant numbers. They were overwhelmingly owned by the aristocracy, however, because much of the population still couldn’t read and because many of the recipes used ingredients that would have been too expensive for ordinary people. Lots of the recipes in them were still about impressing guests with exotic flavours and showing off wealth, rather than filling hungry stomachs. It was not until 100 years later in 1664 that the poor could hope to compete with the rich by showing off meals made with a relatively new addition to England – the potato – with a treatise of their own by John Forster, concisely entitled *deep breath*: England’s Happiness Increased, or a sure and Easy Remedy Against all Succeeding Dear Years by a Plantation of the Roots called Potatoes: Whereby (with the Addition of Wheat flower) Excellent Good and Wholesome Bread may be Made Every 8 or 9 Months Together, for Half the Charge as Formerly; Also by the Planting of These Roots Ten Thousand Men in England and Wales Who Know Not How to Live, or What to Do to Get a Maintenance for their Families, may on one Acre of Ground make 30 Pounds per Annum. Invented and Published for the Good of the Poorer Sort. We can only imagine he was paid by the word.

The recipe I used for my Jumbles was taken from a popular 1596 work by Thomas Dawson called The Good Huswifes Jewell and would have been one of the books that became popular during this culinary boom. Dawson’s recipe used 20 eggs to make 100 Jumbles, and though I suspect my toddler would have happily worked her way through 100 of them, I wasn’t prepared to become a mother to a child that had become 50% dough.

First I mixed 400g of plain flour with 150g of caster sugar in a bowl and added 2 beaten eggs and 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and kneaded it together. The dough was very dry, so I added 50ml of water, which helped bind it. I tipped it out onto a non stick sheet, which after this attempt I’m renaming ‘a total liar sheet’, and divided it into 12 sticky blobs.

The real story here is that I’ve discovered the artistic blur setting (aka food mode) on my camera

While I waited for a saucepan of water to boil, I rolled the dough balls into sausages and tied them into knots, or jumbles. My first jumble attempt was actually pretty impressive! Maybe as promised, the recipe was genuinely inclusive of kitchen klutzes after all? A quick and confident twist of the next sausage told me: no.

I created 2 bespoke designs – the elegant ‘twist and loop’ and the ‘squashed turd’. In fairness, ‘squashed turd’ hadn’t started out that way, but after 5 attempts at threading the dough through a loop of itself I had to admit that that’s what it had become.

After the dough had been shaped I dropped each one, one at a time, into the saucepan of boiling water for about 5-10 seconds until they bobbed to the top. I then fished the molten, distorted shapes out with a spatula, because my slotted spoon was on holiday somewhere, and put them on a greased tray in the oven at 180 degrees, brushing each one with rose-water and a sprinkling of sugar before they went in.

Part way through dipping these in water, I texted my husband to tell him I had just boiled 2 turds. He didn’t reply

After 20-25 minutes they were golden and smelled lovely with a fragrant spicy aroma. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, they had lost some of their shape in between being boiled and then baked. Some of the elegant twist and loops had lost their loops and some of the squashed turds just looked like little round buns, but they were still quite appetising! I tasted one of the blobbier looking ones and found that it was chewy like a bagel with just a hint of sweetness. The caraway seeds mixed with the rose water glaze to be quite fragrant without being overpowering. There was a definite non-modern feeling to these, despite them using modern ingredients. The Jumbles were quite heavy (one was filling enough), and though I had mine plain, I think they’d work well with some honey or salted butter hot from the oven. Definitely worth a go!

It’s hard to do a cover up when you only have one pretty jumble to pile over a bowlful of ugly jumbles, but I tried

E x