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Poulet Reine Elizabeth

Coronation chicken

Society florist and latterly kitchen doyenne Constance Spry made no apologies for including French terms and titles in The Constance Spry Cookery Book. It was not, she noted, a form of snobbery but because the literal English translation was downright unappetising.

‘Do you like the sound of “paste of fat liver”? Would you not laugh if instructed to stand a pan in Mary’s bath?’

Since its publication in 1956 The Constance Spry Cookery Book became the ‘must have’ kitchen bible for newly weds continuing to be a best seller long after its namesakes death in January 1960. Inspired by the work of Spry and Rosemary Hume at the Winkfield cookery school it was aimed squarely at the post war middle class housewife who did not have the benefit of ‘domestic help’ in the home.

Her biographer, Elizabeth Coxhead, has declared the book to be ‘the first important cookery book since the war, the first to challenge the worthy but rather stodgy reign of ‘Mrs Beeton’.’ Other historians have been less complimentary with Colin Spencer caustically saying:

‘It attempted to fix the British cuisine in an aspic that had already melted; it taught leisured classes how to cook in the manner of the nineteenth century, a useless requirement in 1956. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History.

A valuable insight into a bygone age

So is there a place for it in the 21st century? Grub Street have just reissued the book adding metric measurements to aid the present day cook. Otherwise, the book remains unaltered – a testament to the ‘wonderful period piece which offers a valuable insight into a bygone age.’ Granted there may not be a call for aspic in 2019 but the book is packed with helpful advice and delicious recipes from everyday staples like Cottage Pie (which uses left over beef) to more exotic sounding Chicken with Cherries and Tarragon or Lemon Whisky cake, which surely deserve to be rediscovered?

Spry originally wanted to call the book The Reason Why. She badgered her co-author Hume for explanations behind her methods dubbing herself the ‘why man’. Hume’s recipes are accompanied by Spry’s detailed commentary describing the reasons for doing certain things a particular way (so often omitted in today’s recipe books). The advice for cooking dried pulses is as relevant today as it would have been 60 years ago. She was deeply uncomfortable with the books title which the publisher had insisted upon as she was a ‘name’. Spry felt that Hume was not given enough credit and freely admits the book would never have been written were it not for Hume’s ‘real knowledge and experience of food and cooking.’

You won’t want to cook every recipe in this book (but who does cook every single recipe?) but at over 1000 pages I defy you not to find a good handful of dishes that entice you into the kitchen.

That chicken dish

A rather panicked Minister of Works David Eccles asked Spry to cater the coronation banquet as all the hotels in the vicinity were booked solid for the occasion (rather bad planning on his part if you ask me). As well as the food, Spry also offered to provide waiting staff in the form of her Winkfield students. The hospitality committee were horrified at the prospect of “a set of amateurs and a cookery school” running the show but in the absence of a practical alternative they had no other option but to accept Spry’s proposal.

Hume had her work cut out as there were no cooking facilities at the venue. She had to devise a menu that could be served at room temperature and include a vegetarian option to accommodate the dietary requirements of some of the 300 foreign dignitaries they were to serve. The centre piece was a rich chicken salad coated in a mildly spiced, fruity sauce. The banquet was a huge success and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although this dish appeared on the menu as Poulet Reine Elizabeth the actual recipe in the book is given the more recognisable title of Coronation Chicken. As Prue Leith observes in her forward for this 2019 edition it is ‘a million miles’ from the standard coronation chicken filling you find in your pre-packed supermarket sandwich. Give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

Coronation chicken close up

Coronation Chicken

Serves 6 – 8

‘One would not venture to serve, to a large number of guests of varying and unknown tastes, a curry dish in the generally accepted sense of the term…I doubt whether many of the three hundred odd guests at the coronation luncheon detected this ingredient in a chicken dish which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nut-like flavour in the sauce.’

Ingredients for poaching the chicken

2 young roasting chickens (c. 1.5-1.75kg each)

187ml bottle white wine

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 fresh bouquet garni including parsley, bay leaf and thyme

Salt c. 1tbsp

3-4 peppercorns

1 star anise*

1 onion, peeled and cut in half, each half stuck with a clove*

Water to cover

* These are my own additions to the recipe but feel free to omit them if you want to remain true to the original version.

Ingredients for the Cream of Curry Sauce

1 tbsp vegetable oil

50g onion, finely chopped

2 tsp curry powder

1 good tsp tomato puree

1 wine glass (c.125ml) red wine

¾ wine glass (c.90 ml) water

A bay leaf

Salt, sugar and a touch of pepper

A slice or two of lemon and a squeeze of lemon (or more)

1-2 tbsp apricot puree**

450ml mayonaise

2-3 tbsp whipped cream

** Depending on the size of the apricots, this will be 1-2 fruit, de-stoned and cooked with a small amount of water until soft enough to pass through a sieve.

  1. Poach the chickens, with carrot, bouquet, salt, and peppercorns, in water and a little wine, enough to barely cover, for about 40 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool in the liquid. Joint the birds, remove the bones with care.

  2. To make the cream of curry sauce: Heat the oil, add onion, cook gently for 3-4 minutes, add curry powder. Cook again 1-2 minutes. Add tomato puree, red wine, water and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, add salt, sugar, pepper and the lemon slices and juice. Simmer with the pan uncovered for 5-10 minutes. Strain and cool. Add by degrees to the mayonnaise with the apricot puree to taste. Adjust the seasoning, adding a little more lemon juice if necessary. Finish with the whipped cream.

  3. Take a small amount of the sauce (enough to coat the chicken) and mix with a little extra cream and seasoning.

This is an admirable sauce to serve with iced lobster.

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