For as long as I can remember, Easter and coronation chicken have been inextricably linked. One of my mum’s favourite special occasion dishes, a giant platter of gloriously golden coronation chicken on an abundant bed of rice and iceberg lettuce leaves scattered with toasted almonds and dotted with grapes is as synonymous with Easter for me as chocolate eggs and the Easter bunny.
Originally called Poulet Reine Elizabeth, coronation chicken was created by flower arranger turned food writer, Constance Spry, and chef Rosemary Hume, who devised the dish while working at Le Cordon Bleu in London. A Paris graduate, Hume founded the London outpost of the revered French cookery school in 1933. Little did she know that 20 years later she would be cooking a banquet for 350 of the Queen’s most esteemed guests from around the world to celebrate her coronation.
Among the other dishes served at the coronation banquet were tomato soup, river trout and a strawberry tart. It looks like the guests drank well too – one of the wines on pour during the feast was Krug Champagne from the victory vintage of 1945. Forming the centrepiece of the lunch was Poulet Reine Elizabeth, which was thought to be inspired by Jubilee chicken, a dish served at King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 that made a hero of curried mayonnaise.
Spry and Hume’s recipe calls for curry powder, as exotic spices weren’t readily available in post war Britain, with rationing only having recently been phased out. The Cordon Bleu recipe is a lot more savoury than modern incarnations of coronation chicken, which is now most commonly used as a sarnie filler for picnics. While often found in contemporary versions, sultanas had no part to play in the original recipe. Dried apricots however, did.
Constance and Rosemary suggest poaching the chicken for 40 minutes with a carrot, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, peppercorns and a generous glug of red wine. Staying true to their Cordon Bleu roots, the sauce has an onion base, to which the curry powder is added, along with tomato purée, lemon juice and a slug of wine, which you simmer for a few minutes then strain and cool. For the final flourish, you add diced dried apricots and an unholy amount of mayonnaise. The original recipe also includes whipped cream, which seems outlandishly decadent.
Keen to put the Cordon Bleu recipe to the test, I decided to do a sauce off, pitting the original against my mum’s version to see which I preferred. In her remix, my mum swears by Branston pickle, simmering it on a low heat with the curry powder for 20 minutes so all the wonderful spices infuse into it. She also adds a teaspoon of honey and a quarter of a pint of double cream. Making the two sauces was a fascinating exercise. I felt rather like Goldilocks trying out the three bears’ porridge.
I found the Cordon Bleu sauce to be a tad on the savoury side and slightly lacking the punchy curry flavour I have come to associate with coronation chicken. While I preferred my mum’s sauce (perhaps from sheer nostalgia), in comparison with the original recipe, it seemed slightly too sweet. Blending the two into one master sauce, the savouriness of the former balanced out the sweetness of the latter into a ‘just right’ sauce that offered the best of both worlds.
With the sun blazing and four days off work, this was the hardest weekend of the lockdown so far, and the time I most yearned to be with my friends and family – crackling open a bottle of wine by yourself isn’t nearly as pleasurable as sharing one – but, as the Queen said in her speech last week, “better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.