Food News

Fowl play

Fergus Henderson takes a look at our changing relationship to chicken, from Charles V to KFC and his very own chicken and ox-tongue pie.

Illustration by Lara Porter

The chicken is back! It has spent a long time in the doldrums after battery farming, salmonella, and the three-chickens-for-a-fiver in Ridley Road Market all contributed to its being banned from respectable menus. And these weren’t the only technical hitches along the way – how about chicken in a basket? And Colonel Sanders’ global invasion? (Surely the whole world can’t be wrong? But yes, strangely, it is.)

I fear that the real root of the chicken’s PR problem, though, might be a simple fact of culinary economics, which boils down to this: who buys a $30 chicken when they can pay five? This thinking is wrong! On the whole you must pay as much as possible, and get a happy chicken which you can taste. When looking for a chicken I recommend checking legs to see whether they’ve done any walking, the sign of freedom and deliciousness.

Try some of our most inventive roast chicken recipes

But chicken’s reputation hasn’t always been so bad. Henri IV, the king of France, once proclaimed that every French household should have chicken in their pot. A very royal start for the bird. And Charles V, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, who, thanks to a family deformity known as the Habsburg jaw, was known for his party trick of swallowing a whole chicken in one go. I find it interesting that the most powerful man in the world chose chicken for this little snack. Unfortunately I’ve never found out whether the chicken was boned or not, but I like to think perhaps it was cooked in a forerunner to Paul Bocuse’s method, the poulardede Bresse en vessie. Or, in other words, a fine Bresse chicken stuffed with black truffles and foie gras, which is then steamed in a pig’s bladder. A chicken certainly fit for a king, one bite or no.

One of the great chicken enthusiasts, and a man who I believe to be responsible for encouraging our generation to appreciate a fine chicken, is Simon Hopkinson. He is the author of the seminal Roast Chicken and Other Stories in which he shares his simple, but always successful, roast chicken recipe (as the title might have you hope). He has done great, great work on behalf of the bird. One of the deciding moments in my path towards becoming a chef was listening to Simon talk about the roast chicken at L’Ami Louis in Paris, where they manage to involve unimaginable amounts of butter in their own chicken-roasting process. When I finally got there my career decision was confirmed.

At St John we cook game more often than farmed hens, and typically deal more in eggs than chicken, but this is not to say the bird doesn’t have its day. A braise of pig’s trotters, smoky bacon and shallots can create a force-field in which chicken can flourish, especially when it’s teamed at the table with mashed potatoes and – if you’re really committed – triangles of white bread fried in duck fat for dipping in the sauce. It’s also a very fine thing in a pie: a happy chicken gently poached with onions, leek, garlic and black peppercorns, then cut into chunks and set into a pie dish with slices of poached brined ox tongue, onions cooked in butter, and a big handful of extra-fine capers under a sheet of silky white sauce and a blanket of puff pastry. For those of us who sometimes feel a little frail, it’s a pie that will sort you out, no fear.

Try our turmeric and ginger chicken fillo pie

But there have been less glorious chicken events in my life, too. I’m thinking here of my moment of shame with a chicken and a chef de rang. Unfortunately the night before an excellent lunch I may have foolishly overdone it. What made it worse is that my companions had all been playing squash that morning so had good reason to be fatigued, whereas I had no excuse at all. As we settled at the table with much anticipation, me and a chum decided to share a roast chicken as our main course. I can’t remember my starter, but when the time for the chicken came the chef de rang wheeled his trolley up to the table, slicing the bird with precision. Just as he was about to sauce the plates I dropped off, my head descending towards my plate. The jolt of the china on my cheek woke me just in time to avoid a true culinary disaster, but the chef took it badly: he was moments away from covering my head in gravy. 

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