One of the great advantages of researching historical British foods is the continuity in the publication. Production of cookery texts is more or less continuous since the 16th century, with Gilly Lehmann ( in “The British Housewife”, published by Prospect Books) estimating that 188 new titles were published between 1500 – 1790). Even prior to this period there are records of the food consumed, for example Constance Hieatt suggests that approximately 50 manuscripts dealing with cookery that exist from the medieval period. While these figures don’t sound enormous, when you consider that the population of England is estimated to be less the 6 million in 1750 and the very restricted range of the readership, this is a lot of cookery books in circulation. What these means for me is that I can look at a specific ingredient or recipe and analyse it’s use over time. In the present case I’m interested in Gallus gallus domesticus, more commonly called a chicken*. The most well know medieval recipe collection from England is the late 14th century manuscript known as “The Forme of Cury”, attributed to the cooks of Richard II. This is not a cookery book in the modern sense of a text that anybody could follow to produce a recipe, more of a series of brief memory aids for trained professionals. Of several chicken recipes mentioned, one titled “Chykenns in Cawdel” (Chickens in Caudle) is of particular interest. A modern translation of this recipe could be:
“Chicken in Egg Sauce
Take a young chicken and simmer in stock. When tender, remove the chicken and keep warm. Season the stock with ginger, saffron, salt and sugar, then thicken with egg yolks. Be careful to do this off direct heat, so as to avoid curdling the eggs. Cover the chicken with the sauce and serve.”
While nothing precisely the same as this recipe exists in the modern British cookery repertoire, the basic form of this dish existed in almost every cookery text from 1400 to the late 1700’s. So ironically, while this type of dish is unknown in British cookery now, chicken served with an egg thickened sauce is one of the most common ways that British people have traditionally eaten chicken. In fact not just chicken, but veal and lamb were commonly dressed with this style of egg sauce. Recipes serving chicken with an egg sauce fell into two broad categories by the 16th century, either dishes of chicken cooked in broth (similar to the Forme of Cury dish) or the egg sauce was used to dress chickens cooked in pies. Based on the recipes that exist, in the 16th century if you ordered a chicken, you knew that there was a very good chance that it would come with an egg sauce. For example, from the late 16th century “The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin”, there are several recipes for stewed chicken with an egg thickened sauce such as “To Bowle Chickens with a Cawdel” and “To boyle a Capon in white broth” as well as four recipes for chicken pies, three of which were served with and egg sauce.
So what exactly were these egg sauces like? As most of the historical recipe do not gives precise amounts of ingredients, it is difficult question to answer. However, as in the case most “standard” recipes there seems to have been a degree of variation. Both 16th and 17th century recipes contain an acid element, in the older recipes this is usually verjuice (the sour juice of pressed green grapes or apples), but in the 17th century sour element could be provided by wine, verjuice or lemon/orange (sour) juice. Other ingredient that increasingly appeared in the 17th century recipes was butter and in some cases cream. So we have a transition in the recipes from the medieval tradition of broths thickened with eggs, to mixture of egg/broth/acid and finally emulsions of egg yolk/acid and butter.
So in modern terms the range in sauces it could range from a sabayon style sauce to something approaching a Hollandaise sauce. Expressed in these terms even now these recipes are not that outlandish, after all chicken served with a white sauce remains a standard dish. Even the medieval dish is not that far removed from some modern European dishes like the Greek favorite of chicken with avgolemono (“egg with lemon”) sauce. Actually the only strangeness for most people would be perhaps be the combination of spices used and the use of sugar. However, it seems to be the latter of the two which seems to have lead to the final extinction of this dish in Britain.
Many people most likely don’t consider spice use to be a significant part of the tradition of British cooking. While there is no doubt that the range of spices used in traditional British cooking is much more restricted in the 19th and 20th centuries then in previous centuries, the data from dishes like chicken served with an egg sauce, suggests spice use has been a significant factor in historic British savoury foods. Furthermore, even the a small survey of spice use in British chicken pies indicates that not only where spices used in these types of dishes, but the type of spice used was very dynamic. Another thing to note is that there was no specific association of a particular spice with either chicken cooking in general or sweet eggs sauces specifically. People used either spices they thought fashionable or they thought appropriate to the dish. If we look at spice use in chicken pie recipe, we see that spice use largely follows broader trends in cooking. Only in the earliest recipes do we see the more medieval combination of ginger/cloves/pepper, whereas nutmeg which was to dominate the 17th and 18th centuries was rarely if ever used before this period in these dishes. Another thing to note is that it is only in the 19th century that there is a dramatic reduction in the range of spices used. A consequence of this is that the 18th century trend away from the old fashioned sweet pie to new style savoury, does not follow exactly the same trajectory as spice use. For instance, while the ingredient and taste profile of Elizabeth Moxon’s sweet and savoury versions of chicken pie vary greatly, the use of spice (mace and pepper) is identical. So it seems that while a decrease in the use of spice is coincident with the disappearance of chicken with and egg sauce, it is not a cause of it.
In “The British Housewife”, Gilly Lehmann estimates that in the mid-15th century a sweet element occurred in approximately 50% of recipes and the predominant taste profile was a balance of sweet and sour. This balancing of sweet and sour components was a common part of the medieval pan-European court cooking and was particularly to British tastes, being maintained in Britain until well into the modern era far longer then in France for example. French court cooking famously eliminated this “medieval” preference for sweet-sour flavor balance, in favour of salt-sour during the 16th century. The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the 17th century made a large impact in high status British foods, French fashions were in and stayed that way until this day. The archetypal 17th century Renaissance man Sir Kenelm Digby gives an early recipe for then newly fashionable “Fricacee”, however when we read the recipe with it’s French name, we see that in reality it is the familiar style dish of stewed chicken that has lost the sugar and spice. For Digby’s recipe instructs the reader to dress boiled chicken with a:
“..Liquor made of four egg yolks beaten with a little white wine and some verjuice; and keep this over the fire until, till it be sufficiently thickened.”
Although, Digby’s recipe makes the taste transition from sweet to savoury, it still owes as much to the ‘Forme of Cury’ and earlier British recipes as it does to the new French style. This was to remain the case throughout much of the 17th century, with the new “French Fashion” being more of a case of establishing a difference between savoury and sweet dishes, then eliminating traditional ingredients and flavour combinations. While in many types of chicken dishes, the transition from medieval to modern dishes occurred rapidly, it was only in the late 18th century that we find a final departure from the medieval tradition in the case of Chicken pies.
In British chicken pies of the 16th century, fruit was an important ingredient either as a sour element (commonly grapes, gooseberries and barberries) or as the sweet component mostly in the form of dried fruit. While published recipes in Britain lagged behind the change in taste preference from sweet-sour to salt-sour, especially in particularly “British” dishes such as pies, by the end of the 18th century most recipes had made this transition. The classes of dishes that would include chicken cooked in a broth and served with a sweet egg thickened sauces quickly succumbed to the new styles. Finally meat served with fruit in a sweet-sour profile became either a rare status dish (game or mutton served with sour fruit sauces), anachronistic festive treats (as in the case of mince pies) or regional/rural dishes. However, cultural changes like this rarely occur rapidly or uniformly. In many cases this lead to the publishing of alternate recipes for “sweet” and “savoury” chicken pies in the same cookbook. However, even when this was the case there was an awareness by the authors that the tastes of their target readership was changing, as is expressed here by Susanna McIver in her late 18th century Scottish cookbook:
“Some people do not love sweet seasoning in meat pies……If you don’t like them with sweet seasoning, you may put in the yolks of hard eggs and artichoke bottoms [as an alternative to the sweet caudle sauce and dried fruit].”
At the time of the publication of this recipe in the late 18th century, chicken cooked in the old fashioned “sweet” style would have been deeply unfashionable and even unpleasant to most high-class contemporary tastes. Interestingly while most of the old sweet style dishes had largely disappeared from fashionable cookbooks during the late 17th to early 18th century, sweet pies and their sweet eggs sauces seemed much more entrenched. In the middle of the 18th century the influential cookbook writers Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald both give recipes for sweet meat pies, but their chicken pies have made the transition to the new style savoury. Of the three main types of sweet meat pie (veal, lamb and chicken), it was the sweet chicken pies that disappeared first, although this process wasn’t immediate or consistently applied across the country, even in localized areas. So while in 1755 Elizabeth Cleland offered a recipe for a savoury chicken pie with sweet style as a possible alternative, in 1773 her fellow Scot Susanna McIver gave a sweet pie recipe with a savoury version as an alternative. Clearly there were a range of tastes to cater too in this transitional period, especially in more provincial regions.
Potentially, it was the very tenacity of these sweet chicken pies with their sweet egg sauces that has resulted in little direct continuity in the historic and modern pies. The sweet egg enriched sauce was perhaps so iconic that when the sweet component was rejected, the totality of the dish was rejected wholesale. This is not the case with early victims to the change in taste preferences. As we have seen in Digby’s “Fricacee”, while major elements of preceding styles of dishes were eliminated, many aspects of the traditional British cooking was still retained. By the 19th century this style of dish had developed into a dish that was essentially identical to the French version, mostly through a process of gradual transmution due to an awareness of the existence of the codified French archetype. Ironically, “Chicken Fricassee” remains one of the few recipes of for chicken served with an egg thicken sauce to last into the 20th century in Britain - under the guise of a French dish. The situation with chicken pies was different, during the transitional period both savoury and sweet versions of the pie were offered. While in some cases the spicing was similar, the ingredients of these pies was radically different. Charles Carter, one of the last British authors to publish a cookbook (1730) intended to reflect the food of noble and royal households, gives recipes for both sweet and savoury Chicken pies:
Sweet Pie Ingredients:
Artichoke bottoms, marrow, parsley, hard boiled egg yolks, candied citron, lemon and orange peel, candied eringo (sea-holly) root, dates, pistachios and butter.
Savoury Pie Ingredients:
Forcemeat balls, parsley, thyme, asparagus or lettuce, veal sweetbreads, pallets, bacon and butter.
Elizabeth Moxon (1764) gives a similar, if slightly less flamboyant list of ingredients.
Sweet Pie Ingredients:
Hard boiled egg yolks, artichoke bottoms, raisins, candied citron and lemon peel, marrow, forcemeat balls, currants.
Savoury Pie Ingredients:
Veal sweetbreads, forcemeat balls.
By the beginning of the 19th century the trend observed during the previous century had become the norm. Variation in the flavour of the pie was no longer a choice between sweet or savoury, but in additional ingredients added to a savoury pie. Instead of spiced egg enriched sauces, chicken pies were moistened with gravies and broths. Instead of flavour of sour fruit tempered with sugar, chicken pies contained ham, truffles, mushrooms, morels and herbs. In one rare instance where a caudle was mentioned, the author explains that it is a very old recipe. In cases where cream was used to moisten the dish in the style of a caudle, the pie was seen as a regional, not a cosmopolitan dish. One remarkably persistent example of this is of “Parsley pie”. Maria Rundell (1808) gives two recipes in which scalded cream added to the pie in the same way that a caudle formerly was. These “Parsley Pies” are differentiated from her recipe for “Chicken Pie”, indicating how far removed they are from the mainstream. This recipe was copied in numerous 19th century cookbooks and a similar recipe for “Parsley Pie, a Devonshire and Cornish Dish” appears in the recipe collection of Lady Clark of Tillypronie (circ. 1841-1897). This dish appears in recipe collections throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with special mention of the similarity of this style of dish and the ancient caudle pies being made in “British Cookery” (edited by Lizzie Boyd, 1976), where it is called a “Cornish Chicken Pie”. This recipe now appears on various internet sites under the name of “Cornish Chicken Pie”, “Cornish Caudle Pie” or “Cornish Parsley Pie”. The final irony being that in the only modern survival of the British tradition of serving chicken pies with a caudle sauce, the recipe is perceived as being regional not a cosmopolitan dish and the “caudle” is simply cream, an ingredient that was rarely if ever an ingredient in a traditional caudle served with a chicken pie.
Some recipes through the ages:
A Book of Cookrye by A. W. (1591)
To bake Chickins without fruit.
Season your chickens with cloves, mace and pepper, lay them into your paste with sweet butter, gooseberries, sugar and whole mace. And when they be well baked, put thereto vergious, yolkes of egges strained, shake them together and set them into the Oven againe.
A Book of Cookery by Thomas Dawson (1650)
To bake Chickins
First season your Chickins with Sugar, Sinamon and Ginger, and so lay them in your pye; then put in upon them Gooseberries or Grapes, or Barberries, then put in some sweet Butter, and close them up, and when they bee almost baked, then put in a Caudle made with hard Egges and white wine and served it.
Rare and Excellent Receipts by Mary Tillinghast (1690)
How to make a Chicken Pye sweet.
Take half a dozen of Chickens an break all their Bones with a Rowling-pin, then truss them; or else you may cut the Chickens into quarters’which is most proper for a sweet Pie; then seasoning, take half an Once of beaten Cinnamon, one large Nutmeg grated, half a Pound of Sugar, and a little Salt; then season your Chickens with it and put them into the Pie; then lay on some suckets of lettice, and some Suckets of Lemons, some slices of raw Lemons, and some preserv’d Barberries, a Pound of Butter, the Marrow of two Bones; then close the Pie: Two hours of baking is enough for this Pie.
How to Make a Caudle for this Pie.
Take a Pint of White-Whine, and a little Vergise, then make it boyl; then brew it with a good piece of butter, and the Yolks of four Eggs; sweeten it with sugar to your taste, but not too sweet; when the Pie is bak’d, put it into the Pie before it goes to the Table; and shake it, when it is in the Pie.
English Housewifry Exemplified by Elizabeth Moxon (1764)
To make a sweet CHICKEN PIE.
Break the chicken bones, cut them in little bits, season them lightly with mace and salt, take the yolks of four eggs boiled hard and quartered, five artichoke-bottoms, half a pound of sun raisins stoned, half a pound of citron, half a pound of lemon, half a pound of marrow, a few forc’d-meat-balls, and half a pound of currans well cleaned, so make a light puff-paste, but put no paste in the bottom; when it is baked take a little white wine, a little juice of either orange or lemon, the yolk of an egg well beat, and mix them together, make it hot and put it into your pie; when you serve it up take the same ingredients you use for a lamb or veal pie, only leave out the artichokes
*Now that chicken is an everyday and largely unmemorable food, “chicken” pretty much just means “chicken”. However, this wasn’t always the case in the recent past, different developmental stages and sexes having specific terms, so for clarity I will use “chicken” in the modern sense.