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

Caudle Ferry: 1390

Right. I have a confession to make and it’s not one of the cool ones like ‘I was once on a game show in the ’90’s’ or ‘my whole life as you know it is a lie because I’m actually hiding from the mafia and my name is really Julianna’. This confession is probably quite boring to lots of people and also not really much of a confession to anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with the middle ages.

Anything at all will do it for me – crumbly ruins on the side of a motorway? Excuse me while I leave my child unattended on the hard shoulder to go exploring for an hour. Recently discovered plague pit? Sounds like a fantastic family holiday destination. Year 7 National Curriculum guidelines on the Norman Conquest? Make it a Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 mandatory subject. (Actually, I could write an entire post about how medieval history has been infantalised in our education system and is often seen as an ‘easier’ time period to study, helping transition 11 year olds from primary school to secondary. As far as I’m concerned, if my year 7’s aren’t leaving class weeping quietly but with a full comprehension of the many and varied differences between villeins and freemen then I haven’t done my job properly.)

This recipe was therefore something I was really looking forward to: medieval, sweet and seemed pretty straightforward. The collection of recipes this dish is from, the 14th century Forme of Cury, have also been extensively researched, so plenty of reading for me to get stuck into.

Forme of Cury is the oldest cookery book written in English and the original seems to have been written by the master cooks of Richard II, who reigned from 1377 – 1399. During the course of the middle ages, the recipes were updated, edited and copied meaning that there are actually numerous versions. The book contains about 196 recipes designed to instruct the cooks of great households on how to emulate the dishes enjoyed by King Richard for their own masters. Interestingly, despite being written by the king’s cooks, not every recipe in the text is a frenzied opportunity to show off wealth or skill; some of them are for everyday foods such as “common pottages”. It appears that what the authors were really concerned with was making an instructional manual to ensure that cooks knew how to prepare their meals, whatever they were, properly and with care.

1420’s version of the Forme of Cury. From the British Library, Add MS 5016
I’m no expert, but I reckon those spatters could be BBQ sauce

The version I’m using is an 18th century copy of an original 14th century text. It would appear that during the 1700’s, the English naturalist, (not naturist, as I realised I’d written on my 3rd read though), Gustavus Brander, asked his friend Samuel Pegge, an antiquarian and all round nerd, to transcribe an original copy of The Forme of Cury he just had casually lying around into a book. Proving that people have been half-arsing their homework for centuries, Pegge returned it and the book to Brander with a note apologising that he had not been able to complete a full transcript of the text because of his lack of ability, but that he hoped what he had completed would be good enough. History is silent on whether Brander accepted this excuse or if he made Pegge redo it in lunchtime detention.

Caudle Ferry was an odd one to recreate because I wasn’t sure what the modern day equivalent was and, frankly, the medieval version didn’t seem to know what it was meant to be either. Some people suggested that it should be like a thick drink and others stated it should be more like a dough which could be sliced. From what I can gather it started out as a warming drink and over time developed to become more of a food through the addition of breadcrumbs to the recipe. The only thing that was clear to me was that it was definitely meant to be sweet.

With literally no idea what this should look like and, in true medieval style, with no sodding measurements or times stated in the recipe, I called my sister for help. I lured her in with the promise of cake and that I would mention her in this post, despite the fact I’m fairly sure only she and my husband read this blog.

First of all I mixed 2 dessert spoons of white flour with 185ml of white wine. I chose Sauvignon Blanc because of its intoxicating and heady notes of frugality which were created by being 50% off in Sainsbury’s. To this, I added “a grete quantite” of clarified honey and a few strands of saffron. Thanks to my last foray into medieval cooking, I knew that I didn’t need to waste time clarifying my honey, so I took the step of declaring that “a grete quantite” converted into 3 dessert spoons and stirred it all round. The honey sank to the bottom of the mix and, as my sister said, certainly sat there looking like it was a great quantity, so I left it at that.

I then cooked it on a low heat for 6 or 7 minutes, stirring it continuously because I didn’t want the flour to go lumpy. When it had thickened, I added two egg yolks and a pinch of salt and continued to stir over a low heat. Still with no idea of what this was meant to be like, I could only describe the texture and appearance as being like the love child of custard and wallpaper paste. My sister, whose kitchen specialty is eclairs, told me I’d basically made choux pastry, which is a much more appetising way of describing it.

After I was confident the yolks had been fully incorporated and cooked, I scraped it all into a bowl and sprinkled on 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Ever the gracious hostess, I dared let my sister try it first.

“I have created a new dish for your majesty, inspired by the work of the palace decorators currently re-papering your room”

Thanks to my diligent stirring the texture was very smooth. It was also very, very thick and sticky and not as creamy as it looks. The wine was a prominent flavour, but was nicely balanced by the great quantity of honey, which I’d absolutely nailed. Overall it was like a mildly sweet, slightly alcoholic goo. Both of us agreed that a few spoons was plenty and we weren’t able to finish it all. During the middle ages this dish may have been served along with many others, with guests taking a spoonful or so of each, so to eat an entire bowl may have been overly ambitious. Regardless, the first spoon we tried became one of those situations where you’re waiting for the other one to give their opinion first so you know whether you can admit to actually quite liking something, or whether you’re just a total weirdo.

It seemed a shame to waste what was left so, inspired by my sister’s comment about choux pastry, I scraped the remaining mixture out into little profiteroles onto a baking sheet and baked at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Unfortunately it would appear that my sister has sold her soul to the devil of baking because after following her instructions and fantasising about the boozy filling I could make to go with them, my profiteroles looked like this:

No, I didn’t try to eat it

Even though I still don’t really know what Caudle Ferry is, I guess sometimes the old adage ‘if it ain’t totally inedible, don’t piss around trying to be clever’ really is true.

E x