Christmas in Chaucer’s Kitchen
By Tim Hazzel
His breed, his ale, was alweys after oon;
A bettre envyned man was
Withoute bake mete was nevere his hous
Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentevous,
It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke,
Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke.
—Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales abound with food references. In England of the late Middle Ages, references to Christmas feasts and groaning tables abound. Table fellowship, protocol based upon rank, attire, and profession validated one’s position in feudal society. Celebrations in well-stocked houses of the nobility became opportunities to flaunt wealth and political clout. Others who were less self-indulgent focused their attention on the distress of the impoverished, and therefore towards compassion.
Chaucer (1340-1400) was a master when it came to infusing food metaphors with medieval aphrodisiac lore. Crusades had brought the high gastronomic culture of the east back to English and Frankish kitchens two centuries before. Ingredients such as lotus fruit, mustard, saffron, cloves, licorice root, and coconut bore witness to trade routes that extended from west to east. Snow-cooled fruit juices were early predecessors of today’s sorbets.
Here for your Christmas holiday revelry is a Chaucerian dish worthy of the bard’s own table, redolent with herbs from an English garden and spice of the Orient.
(Golden Cardamon Chicken)
1 large roasting chicken cut into serving portions
1/4 cup pecans, coarsely ground
1/4 cup cashews, coarsely ground
4 tablespoons butter for sauteing
3 tart apples, cored and peeled
2/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup currants
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely crushed
Good pinch of thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed cardamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
6 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon saffron
2 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sauté the chicken and nuts in butter in a Dutch oven or covered baking dish until the meat is lightly browned. Leave in the dish and remove from heat. Halve the apples and cut into thin slices, slivers, or cubes. Place in a mixing bowl and fold in the raisins and currants. Combine and stir together all the spices and salt. Mix with the fruits. Distribute the spiced fruit among the chicken and nuts. Stir the chicken broth and wine together and pour over the ingredients in the saucepan. Bake covered in a slow oven for 40 to 45 minutes until the chicken is tender. Remove from the oven and prepare the golden honey glaze. Raise oven temperature to 400 degrees. Beat the egg yolks, saffron, and honey thoroughly. Pour the glaze evenly over the chicken so as to coat each piece, or use a basting brush for a more even golden result. Return to the oven uncovered for five to seven minutes to let the glaze set. Remove and serve warm, garnished with rosemary or sweet basil.