By Tim Hazell
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales abound with food references. For English gentry of the late Middle Ages, allusions to feasts, groaning tables at rustic nuptial celebrations and convergences between gastronomy and social class delineated character as well as personality. Table fellowship based upon rank, attire, and profession validated the stratified feudal community. Although “sumptuary laws” had been passed during the reign of Edward III to curb extravagance, elaborate feasts in well-stocked houses of the nobility were opportunities to flaunt assets and political clout. For others less self-indulgent, food edicts encouraging restraint were a means of redirecting public attention and compassion towards the distress of the impoverished.
Earthy Yuletide traditions and celebrations symbolized elaborate and joyous restorative processes for all. 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. Arab and Egyptian cooks taught the knights gourmet predilections of Jerusalem, Ramle, and Acre, along with customs integrating music, dance, and storytelling with holiday banquets. Ingredients such as lotus fruit, mustard, saffron, cloves, licorice root, and coconut bore witness to trade routes that extended from east to west. Snow-cooled fruit juices were early predecessors of today’s sorbets.
Here for your holiday revelry is a 15th century Chaucerian recipe worthy of the Bard’s own table, redolent with herbs from an English garden and spice of the Orient.
Golden Cardamom Chicken
1 large roasting chicken cut into serving portions
1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup cashews, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp. butter for sauteing
3 tart apples, cored and peeled
2/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup currants
2 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. crushed cardamom seed
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
6 egg yolks
1 tsp. saffron threads
2 tbsp. liquified honey
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Saute the chicken and nuts in butter in a large saucepan with a cover until the meat is lightly browned. Leave in the dish and remove from heat. Halve the apples and cut into thin slices. Place in a mixing bowl and fold in the raisins and currants. Combine the herbs, spices and salt. Add to the fruits and toss. Distribute the spiced fruit amongst the chicken and nuts. Stir the chicken broth and wine together and pour over the ingredients in the saucepan. Cover and bake for 60 minutes or until the chicken is very tender. Remove from the oven and serve warm, garnished with rosemary and sweet basil, or prepare the golden honey glaze. Beat the egg yolks, saffron, and honey together thoroughly. Pour the glaze evenly over the chicken to coat each piece, or use a basting brush for a more even golden result. Raise the oven temperature to 400°F (200°C). Return the saucepan to the oven uncovered for 5 to 7 minutes to let the glaze set. Remove and serve warm, garnished with rosemary and sweet basil.