The challenge this fortnight: soups, stews, sauces and gravies. I set out wanting to explore the origins of the classic French dish poule au pot, and the seemingly simple chicken stew turned out to be rather intriguing.
The story goes that Henri IV of France aka Henry of Navarre, Henry the Great, Good King Henry or The Green Gallant (1553-1610), left with a nation devastated by more than 30 years of war between Catholics and Protestants, wanted to lead France back to prosperity. After a game of jeu de paume (the precursor of tennis), Henri and the Duke of Savoy were discussing the future of the kingdom and Henri says:
“si Dieu me donne encore de la vie, je feray qu’il n’y aura point de labourer en mon Royaume, qui n’ait moyen d’avoir une poule dans son pot”
If God continues to give me life, I will ensure that there is no labourer in my kingdom who lacks the means to have a chicken in his pot.
The phrase became a rallying point for the French peasantry, particularly during the French Revolution and the dish has become a classic.
Unfortunately this quote is first recorded by Hardouin Péréfixe de Beaumont some 50 years after Henri’s death and while the sentiment fits with Henri’s efforts to encourage new techniques for farming, land management and even silk farming, there is no real evidence that he ever said such a thing. Even if he did, the use of the word “labourer” in French implies only the upper class of land owning peasant, not the majority the lower classes who were landless day labourers.
I couldn’t find any recipes which were explicitly linked with Henri, which makes sense since the gist of the phrase clearly emphasises the ability to afford a chicken rather than a particular way of cooking it. For a recipe that is somewhat related you could try this 1895 recipe (in French) for Poule Au Pot Belle-Gabrielle which is named after Henri’s favourite mistress (who was also an early adopter of that newfangled piece of technology: the fork).For something a bit closer to the time of Henri IV (1553-1610) I turned to L’Ouverture de Cuisine, a cookbook published in 1604, written by Lancelot de Casteau. Lancelot was a master cook in Liège in modern Belgium. He offers a recipe for boiled capon to be served in the first service which goes as follows:
“Boiled capon when it is somewhat cooked, put therein rosemary, marjoram, flour of nutmeg, a salted lemon cut into slices, a reumer of white wine, or verjuice, & butter, some beef marrow bones, & let them stew together well, served on toasted white bread.”
Seems simple enough right? But what on earth is a reumer? It took a lot of digging, but eventually I got there. It’s the French name for a Dutch or German wineglass called a roemer named after the Romans who had introduced the Germans to glass-making. The green glass was shaped into round cups with thick stems covered in prunts or small lumps of glass. The prunts helped people hold onto the cups with greasy fingers during meals. Although quite simple in form the glasses could be highly decorated with diamond point engraving and enamel and they can be seen in many paintings of the period. For extant examples try here, or here, or here.So how much does a reumer contain? The best information I can find says that in the 16th century glasses contained between 120 and 400ml, so basically anywhere from half a cup to more than a cup and a half.
1 chicken (capon if you can find it)
A large sprig of rosemary
1 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 nutmeg, grated
1 preserved lemon, cut into slices
3/4 cup of dry white wine, or to taste
1 tbsp butter
3 or 4 beef marrow bones
Bread to serve
1. Place the whole chicken in a pot or slow cooker, cover with water and cook until the outside has turned white.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the bread. Cover with a lid and allow to simmer about 90 mins or until the chicken is cooked and falling of the bone. If cooking in a slow cooker cook on low for 8 hrs.
3. Remove the chicken and shred the meat. Add the shredded chicken back into the stock and season to taste. Serve over toasted white bread.
The Recipe: Boiled Capon from L’Ouverture de Cuisine by Master Lancelot de Casteau (transcription available here)
The Date: 1604
How did you make it? See above.
Time to complete?: I put it in the slow cooker overnight, so prep time was about 15 mins and cooking was about 8 hrs.
Total cost: The chicken was about $15 and the preserved lemons were pricey at $13 (would be a lot cheaper if home-made) but the marrow bones were only $5 and everything else I already had. All up around $30 for about 6-8 serves.
How successful was it?: It tasted good, although the grease sat on the top and had to be stirred well into the stock. The chicken was tender and juicy, and the stock was pleasantly citrusy.
How accurate?: Well obviously the choice of the slow cooker wasn’t exactly period, but it worked for me with the time constraints and mimicked a long, slow simmer nicely. I couldn’t get my hands on a capon so I used a free range chicken instead. I don’t know if the preserved lemons were the right choice, they certainly tasted good but I couldn’t find much about the use of preserved lemons in Europe at this time. Finally, the recipe didn’t specify exactly what to do with the chicken once it was cooked. Was it served whole? In its liquid? Cut up or shredded and served as a soup? Since the stock was tasty I went with the latter option and shredded the chicken before returning it to the hot stock.
Hardouin de Péréfixe de Beaumont, Histoire du Roy Henry le Grand (Chez Charles Osmont, 1681), 528.
 Vincent J. Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age (United States of America: JHU Press, 2009), 259.
 Ibid., 258.
 Leo Moulin, Eating and Drinking in Europe (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 2002), 196.
Daniel Myers, “Ouverture de Cuisine,” Medieval Cookery, 2012, http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/ouverture.html.
 Corning Glass Center, Glass from the Corning Museum of Glass : a Guide to the Collections. (Corning, N.Y: Corning Glass Center, 1955), 39, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015031699146; Percival MacIver, The Glass Collector;a Guide to Old English Glass, (New York: Mead and Company, 1919), 264, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uva.x001070865.
 Moulin, Eating and Drinking in Europe, 198.
Beaumont, Hardouin de Péréfixe de. Histoire du Roy Henry le Grand. Chez Charles Osmont, 1681.
Corning Glass Center. Glass from the Corning Museum of Glass : a Guide to the Collections. Corning, N.Y: Corning Glass Center, 1955. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015031699146.
MacIver, Percival. The Glass Collector; a Guide to Old English Glass, New York: Mead and Company, 1919. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uva.x001070865.
Moulin, Leo. Eating and Drinking in Europe. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 2002.
Myers, Daniel. “Ouverture de Cuisine.” Medieval Cookery, 2012. http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/ouverture.html.
Pitts, Vincent J. Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. United States of America: JHU Press, 2009.