So Queenie’s been in the job for sixty years. Roll out the bunting, and have a picnic on the village green. Well that’s what we’ll be doing around here.
All those years ago for her coronation lunch in 1953, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume of Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London came up with this original dish. It subtly reflected the fading Empire that the Queen had just inherited, our historical links with India (her mother had been the last Empress of India), but also looked forward to a brighter modern future. Then ten years ago at her golden anniversary celebratory lunch, she was, apparently, served a “Thai-scented” chicken curry – kind of inevitable, given that everyone was obsessed with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves at the time. But what a vacuous gesture, what a pitifully ill-conceived, and ignorant nod to the past.
If you look at the original recipe (The Constance Spry Cookery Book, Grub Street) it has tomato puree, sautéed onions, tinned apricot halves, and red wine in the list of ingredients. All unusually and exotically complicated. You may be more familiar with Coronation Chicken from Marks & Spencer’s sandwiches. That’s a shame, you’re missing one of the 20th Century’s great British dishes.
Recipes evolve, but Queenie would still easily recognise this. I was astounded how, with a little care and attention, Coronation Chicken is a truly superb cold buffet-style centrepiece. It is deep and complex, quite far removed from the sickly slick of orange mayo-ed chicken that you find inside even a very good sandwich.
Use Mango Chutney instead of the Apricot Jam, if you prefer. The curry powder should be plain, bog-standard, common-or-garden, nothing-special-whatsoever-about-it curry powder. It will probably come in a little jar that just says “Curry Powder” on the label, and can be found hiding in amongst the herbs and spices. If you can’t find that, use a “Madras” curry powder.
It’s nice to buy fresh chickens and poach them, but if you have a butcher who cooks them fresh on the premises, then that can be a pretty useful alternative.
This recipe is an abridged, updated version of the one published in Five Fat Hens.
Enough to make the centrepiece for a buffet of eight
1 small onion, finely chopped – or a similar quantity of shallots
1 dessertspoon of “general purpose”/Madras-style curry powder
1 dessertspoon of passata, or thinned down tomato paste
2 glasses of good white wine
1 bay leaf
2 cooked chickens, each about 1.4-1.5kg
300g full fat mayonnaise
200ml whipping cream
3 big tablespoons of apricot conserve (best quality you can find), or sweet mango chutney
Roast flaked almonds and coriander, or plain watercress to garnish
Heat a little butter or oil in the frying pan, and add the very finely chopped onions or shallots – they must be finely chopped because they should almost disappear into the sauce. Sweat them down until completely translucent. Add the curry powder and fry that for a minute or two, add the passata, or thinned tomato paste, and let it catch a little on the bottom of the pan. It will turn from red to brown, this is important for both colour and flavour. Add the wine, bay leaf, a little salt and pepper and, if the wine is very dry, a pinch or two of ordinary white sugar. Bring it to the boil and keep it there for a minute, then turn it down to a simmer and reduce it to a thin syrup consistency – five or ten minutes should do. Let it cool completely.
In a roomy bowl, beat the whipping cream to soft peaks. In another bowl mix the mayonnaise, apricot jam and cold reduced curry sauce together. Fold this syrupy jammy, curried mayo into the stiffened whipping cream to create the finished sauce.
Pull the cooked chickens apart. You can discard the skin, keeping the bones for stock. Cut the pieces of meat into bites size chunks. Put a little of the sauce, which should have the consistency of fairly thick cream, to one side. Toss the chicken in the remaining sauce and taste it. Add a little seasoning if it needs it.
Put all the saucy chicken onto a serving plate, or into a bowl. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top, and cover with cling film until ready to eat. At the last minute, I like to fling plenty of roasted flaked almonds over the top (leave this until the last minute, or they’ll go soggy) and sprinkle, a little less generously, with roughly chopped coriander. Staunch traditionalists would garnish with a bunch or two of watercress.