The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Historic Cooking: Capon with Oranges, 1596.

Capon (Chicken) with Oranges.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
In the History of Royal Food and Feasting course last week, we took a look at the 16th century, and English aristocratic and royal food of Elizabeth I's court.  I was able to complete one of the suggested recipes: Capon with Oranges.  Here is the original recipe:

Take your capon and set him on the fire as before with marrow bones and mutton, and when you have skimmed the pot well, put thereto the value of a farthing loaf, and let it boil till it be half boiled. Then take two or three ladlesful of the same broth and put it into an earthen pot, with a pint of the same wine aforesaid. Peel six or eight oranges and slice them thin, and put them into the same broth with four pennyworth in sugar or more, and a handful of parsley, thyme and rosemary, together tied. Season it with whole mace, clove, and sticks of cinnamon, with two nutmegs beaten small. And so serve it.
-- Thomas Dawson, Good Housewife’s Jewel (1596).

Of course, you can't get capons in California these days, because the operation that creates them (emasculating a rooster) is illegal.  Caponizing was a way of fattening up the extra roosters that weren't needed for the hens; capons tended to be bigger and fatter than hens, and it kept them from becoming as aggressive with other (un-caponized) roosters when kept with the rest of the flock.

ingredients for Capon with Oranges.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The recipe is basically chicken braised in broth, wine, herbs, and spices, with a few changes from the normal modern method.  I used some chicken thighs for my recipe.  Also, while I didn't have mutton broth, I did have some beef marrow bones in the freezer, so I used two of those (all that would fit in my saucepan), along with some chicken broth, for the liquid.  I only had a little bit of white wine, so I also used some white wine vinegar.  I had no way of knowing how much sugar could be bought for 4 pennies, so I just used 4 sugar cubes.  I didn't have a farthing loaf of bread, so again, I tore up a slice of sandwich bread.  Also, since I didn't have enough meat to equal one whole capon, I only used 3 oranges instead of the six to eight, and I didn't have any parsley, so I left it out.

Chicken boiling in the broth with the marrow. 
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
Here is what I did:

2 pieces (3-inches long) of beef marrow bones
1 pint of low-sodium chicken broth
1 pint of water
4 bone-in chicken thighs
1 slice white bread (crumbs only)
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 whole oranges, peeled and sliced
4 sugar cubes
2 sprigs each fresh thyme and rosemary
1 tsp. each ground mace and nutmeg
4 whole cloves
1 stick of Ceylon cinnamon, broken
salt and pepper

Oranges, herbs, spices, and wine in
the broth.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Put the marrow bones, water, and broth into the pan first, and bring to a boil to melt the marrow and get all the flavor from the bones, skimming any scum off the top of the broth as it rises.  Remove the bones from the broth, scoop out the marrow, and add it back to the broth.  Discard the bones.  Place the chicken in the broth, and make sure it is covered in liquid.  Bring to a gentle boil, and then reduce the heat to keep the broth at a bubble, for 30 minutes.  Then, remove the chicken from the broth to a separate plate, and cover to keep warm.  Bring the broth back to a boil, and add the spices, herbs, orange slices, wine, vinegar, and sugar.  Boil for 10 minutes to infuse the broth with the flavor, and reduce it a little.  Add the bread, torn into small pieces, to thicken the sauce further.  After the 10 minutes, return the chicken to the pan with the sauce, and let it cook for another few minutes to re-heat the chicken and infuse it with the flavor of the sauce.  Remove the chicken to a serving plate, remove the herb stems and the whole spices, pour the sauce over it, and garnish as desired.  Serves 2 to 4.

Capon (Chicken) with Oranges.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The meat came out very tender and moist, and I think the flavors of this recipe are good, although I could hardly taste the spices the way I made it (above).  I could taste the sweetness of the sugar and the oranges, but without the orange peel there wasn't that strong orange flavor that I would have preferred.  The main flavor was the meat, the herbs, and the chicken broth.  Also, the spices and wine tasted good in the sauce, but hardly flavored the meat at all.  When I make this the next time, I will put all the ingredients (except the bread) into the broth at the beginning, add more spices and wine, and also add the orange peels.  I also might not use so much water at the beginning, but just use broth, wine, and vinegar for the liquid.

Despite the blandness of this variation of the dish, I still think it's a good one, and I hope to get my next attempt to have the punch of orange, spice, herb, and wine flavor that I think it should have.


Elise Fleming/Alys K. said...

I, too, tried the recipe and used the meat of the orange rather than the peel. The problem is that the word "them" could be ambiguous. It does look as if the "them" refers to the oranges, but I think it could also refer to the peels which were removed. I didn't care for the mushy, mostly "dissolved" oranges. However, modern oranges aren't quite the same as the oranges available in the late 1500s. I wonder how this would taste if the recipe was followed more closely as to ingredients.

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Yes, the oranges basically dissolved in my dish, too. I will definitely include the orange peels next time. I do have a bottle of Seville orange juice (found it in a Latin supermarket a while ago), so I may add some of that instead of wine vinegar next time, and definitely more wine.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)