Now that the Lenten fast is behind us, let’s look at a more festal dish. I apologize to the vegetarians among my Readers, as this is a patently carnivorous recipe, even though it is fowl rather than red meat. It is also another example of there being nothing new under the sun. We’ve apparently been savoring chickens this way for most of a millennium.
from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books,, Harleian Ms. 4016
Dated about 1450
Take parcelly, Sauge,.Isoppe. Rose Mary, and tyme and breke hit betwen thi hondes, and stop the Capon There-with; colour hym with Safferon, and couche him in an erthen potte, or of brasse, and ley splentes vnderneth and all abought the sides, that the Capon touche no thinge of the potte; strawe good herbes in ye potte, and put there-to a pottel of the best wyn that thou may gete, and none other licour; hele the potte with a close led, and stoppe hit abought with dogh or bater, that no eier come oute; And sette hit on ye faire charcole, and lete it seethe easly and longe till hit be ynowe. And if hit be an erthen potte, then set hit on the fyre whan thou takest hit downe, and let hit not touche the grounde for breking; And whan the ete is ouer past, take out the Capon with a prik; then make a sirippe of wyne, reysons of couranch, sugur and safferon, And boile hit a littull; medel pouder of ginger with a litul of ye same wyn, and do thereto; then do awey the fatte of the sewe of the Capon, And do the Siryppe to the sewe, and powre hit on the Capon, and serve it forth.
TRANSLATION Take parsley, sage, hyssop, rosemary, and thyme, and break it between thy hands, and stuff the Capon therewith. Color him with saffron, and lay him in an earthen pot, or [a pot] of brass, and lay splints underneath and all about the sides, [so] that the Capon touch nothing of the pot. Strew good herbs in the pot, and put therein a pottel [see glossary] of the best wine that you may get, and no other liquid. Seal the pot with a tight lid, and stop it about [the edge] with dough or batter, [so] that no air [can] come out. And set it on good charcoal, and let it simmer gently and as long [as it takes to] be done. And if it be[in] an earthen pot, then set it on the fire when you take it down, and let it not touch the ground [because it might] break. And when the heat is reduced, take out the Capon with a fork; then make a syrup of wine, raisins, sugar and saffron. Boil it a little; mix powdered ginger with a little of the same wine, and add; then take away the fat of the broth of the Capon. And add the Syrup to the broth, and pour it on the Capon, and serve it forth
REALIZATION: Mix fresh chopped parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (you may sing along if you want), and rub it thoroughly on the interior of a roasting fowl. (See note on capons below.) The hyssop is optional; if you can’t find someone with a garden who has some, you can add a very light touch of mint. You may rub the outside with a mixture of saffron and salt if you feel rich; otherwise, rub the outside with mild paprika. Place the herbed bird on a rack in a pot with a tight lid. Add additional herbs, more of the same herbs, or variations on the same theme. Add up to a cup of wine, but don’t let it touch the bottom of the bird on the rack. Cover the pot with a tight lid. The medievals would have sealed the edge of the pot with a seal of flour-and -water paste, or extra bread dough, if it was baking day. The idea here is to make an air-tight seal. There are two ways to cook this dish. It can either be baked in a 350º oven for 20 minutes per pound of bird, or simmered over low to moderate stove-top heat for the same period of time. When done, carefully remove from the pan and place on a serving dish. Strain off the broth and degrease; there will probably be a significant amount of fat. Mix about ½ c. sugar and ½ tsp. saffron with 1/2 c. of the same wine you used in the pot. Add about ¼ c. raisins or currants and simmer gently for about 5 minutes. Add ½ tsp. powdered ginger, stir smooth, and mix with the broth from the bird. It may be served over the fowl, or as a sauce on the side.
As a nostalgic point, if you or your parents were ever given one of those unglazed pottery cookers that are shaped like a chicken, which you soak in water and then bake in it, this is the perfect recipe. Just be sure to follow the above directions and put the hot baking dish down on a trivet or wooden cutting board, and not on a cold (or WET!) counter. The temperature differential will cause the hot pottery to shatter, and make a genuinely medieval mess all over your kitchen!
A word about capons: For those of you less familiar with traditional farm life, a capon is a neutered rooster. Its compensation for a life without hens is that its sole job is to eat itself plump on gourmet grains, until rotund enough to grace some fortunate person’s dinner table. A capon can usually be found in the frozen poultry section of most supermarkets. Since roosters grow bigger than hens, a dressed capon will usually be between five and eight pounds, and will serve eight. This recipe can also be done with a chicken to serve four, or the smallest turkey you can find to serve ten.
Pottel: A liquid measure of about a pint. My recipe uses less liquid, because our pots are smaller than theirs were, by and large.
Prik: Fork; an implement capable of “pricking” something. Chicken cooks off the bone very easily. For this recipe, you may be better off using a spoon or heavy spatula to get the bird our of the pot. Just be sure to drain out all the broth.
Sewe: Broth or juices from a baked dish.
Luteing: This word was not in the recipe, but is the medieval term for the process of sealing a pot lid with dough to make it air-tight.
Eier: In most medieval recipes, this word means “eggs”. If there any linguists in the crowd, it is derived from the German plural for “egg”. However, in this recipe, the word means not “eggs”, but “air”. The words would have been pronounced almost identically in most places in England; you have to get the meaning from the context.