Dear Constant Reader,
With the recent warm weather and soaking rain, my herb garden has had an autumn renaissance. The sorrel in particular (normally a spring plant) was looking remarkably healthy. Having a rare night off, I decided to cook a 16th century dish for dinner and use it up all the sorrel before the frost hits. Sorrel has a delightful lemony flavor and is most often used in soup in several Eastern European cuisines. It’s hard to find, which is why I grow it, and it’s impossible to preserve, so when you have it, use it.
From The Good Huswifes Iewell by Thomas Dawson (1596)
To boile Chickins
Strayne your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in peeces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.
I started with two split chicken breasts. In the past I’ve used a game hen, but there weren’t any at the market. You want to use meat on the bone for the best flavor. I put the breasts in a small pot (aka a pipkin) in which they just fit and added chicken broth to cover, maybe two cups. No scumming needed. I omitted the butter, because modern chickens are fattier than their Elizabethan counterparts.
Then I gathered all the sorrel, which turned out to be about 3 oz, and chopped it finely. I added it to the bird & broth. Then I let it simmer until the chicken was cooked through.
Then I removed the chicken and I added 1 tsp. cinnamon and 1/2 tsp. ginger to the broth because those were the spices called for in “To dresse Chickins upon Sorrell sops” from A.W.’s A Book of Cookrye (1584) plus a little salt and pepper.
I’m unclear what “veriuyce pycke” means. Maggie Black, in her modernization, had something like “and a little verjuice. Pick a few barberries”, but that just didn’t seem right. I just ignored “pycke” for now. Verjuice is made from juice of unripe grapes and it’s a little like vinegar, but milder and with a hint of sweetness. I added 1/4 cup.
Next, the barberries. I had some dried barberries a friend gave me, but when I got it out of the pantry, I discovered the berries, still tightly sealed up, were crawling with pantry moth larvae. Eeeewwww! Out to the trash those went in a hurry! Jerusalem: A Cookbook recommended substituting dried sour cherries or dried currants refreshed in lemon juice. However, references in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book and Food & Drink in Britain both suggested that barberries were used fresh. I thawed some of our sour cherries and threw them into the broth.
I let the broth cook down for a while and then put the chicken back in for a bit.
Soppes, also called sippets, are slices on stale bread that are put in the bottom of a dish to soak up the broth or juice or gravy. They’re a holdover from the medieval days of trenchers — a slab of sturdy bread used instead of a plate. You want the bread to be really hard or it will get gummy quickly.
I didn’t have any stale bread, so I cut some slices of Italian bread and toasted them. Those went in the bottom of the dish. I put one of the breasts and a few ladles of broth on top. Then I cut about half a lemon into thin slices, sprinkled them lightly with sugar and laid them all over the bird.
I’ll probably cut the remaining breast into pieces and serve it in the broth as soup.
This recipe is a little rougher than most as I usually wing it, depending on how much sorrel is growing and how much broth it takes to cover the meat, and I didn’t time anything. Consider everything approximate and do as you see fit. That’s the beauty of historic recipes.
1 1/2 pounds chicken on the bone
2 cups chicken broth (or enough to cover chicken)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
3 ounces sorrel, chopped
1/2 cup sour cherries (or 1/4 cup dried barberries refreshed in water or 1/4 currents refreshed in lemon juice)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
Salt & pepper
1/4 cup verjuice
Slices of stale bread
Simmer chicken and sorrel in broth until chicken is done (the time will depend on the size and cut of your meat). Remove chicken. Add fruit, spices, and verjuice. Simmer until flavors combine and broth reduces somewhat. Add the chicken back into the broth to warm it up.
Place slices of stale or toasted bread with the crusts trimmed in a dish. Put the chicken on top and pour some of the broth over. Slice a lemon thinly and garnish chicken. Sprinkle some sugar on the lemon slices. Serve immediately.