Coronation chicken has fallen from grace. Once a triumphant banqueting dish created to celebrate the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, it is now more likely to be found on a tired baguette in a railway platform shop, or, rejected, at the back of a petrol-station fridge. Somewhere along the line it became stuck in a lurid yellow gloopy rut, a sandwich filling of last resort, a joke.
Invented by Rosemary Hume and Constance Spry, founders of the London Cordon Bleu school, coronation chicken was probably inspired by Jubilee Chicken, a dish served at George V’s silver jubilee 18 years earlier, but it seems that the principal motivation was pragmatism.
Hume and Spry were asked to present a banquet-style coronation-day lunch to 350 people in the great hall of Westminster School. Although the dish was Hume’s idea, it was Spry who related the recipe and occasion in her cookbook. She listed the difficulties the lunch presented: guests would be seated in two areas not close to each other; the kitchens were limited and hot food was out of the question; the waitresses would be amateurs, students of Le Cordon Bleu; and of course, the ‘varying and unknown tastes’ of the 350 guests had to be guessed at.
The solution was ‘Poulet Reine Elizabeth’, forever after known as coronation chicken. In a nod to the empire, it contained curry powder, but Spry said guests were unlikely to detect it and would simply note the ‘delicate and nut-like flavour’. It was served alongside soup and trout and ham, followed by lemon tart and strawberry cake, washed down with Krug champagne.
Coronation chicken has been constantly reinvented ever since, moving with the times like the monarchy itself. For the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, Heston Blumenthal introduced new elements like coriander and nigella seeds, but (surprisingly for the man behind bacon-and-egg ice cream) played it safe overall.
I offer you this recipe as I come to the end of my own studies at Le Cordon Bleu, where Hume and Spry’s names literally adorn the walls, and kitchens are named after them. But I hope it will go some way to redeeming coronation chicken’s reputation. It can be a cracking dish that lends itself to tweaks, but we’re not here to play with tradition for the sake of novelty. Some elements are non-negotiable: the chicken for starters, but also the creamy sauce, curry powder, and an injection of fruitiness. Sultanas seem achingly dated, and apricots with flaked almonds conjure up thoughts of tagine — delicious, but not what we want here. Instead, mango chutney brings sweetness and a little spice, mint and coriander a lively freshness, and mixing natural yoghurt into the mayonnaise lifts the whole thing. Visually, it is brought to life by pale pink pomegranate seeds and bright green pistachios.
A friend had told me that the secret to her heavenly chicken sandwiches was to poach the meat, which is a faff. But I gave it a go here and she’s right: it produces the most perfect chicken, particularly if you use the thighs.
Traditionally, you would eat this spooned over rice, but I’d try it with steamed new potatoes with a little olive oil. Or, of course, just spread it on sandwiches and you have a picnic fit for a queen.
1. First, poach your chicken. Place the chicken, carrot, onion, celery, bay and peppercorns in a medium saucepan. Cover with water, place the lid, and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. Then turn the heat down as low as possible and cook for another 10-15 minutes until a probe inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 75°C. Without a probe, cut into the chicken thigh: there should be no hint of pink, and any juices that come out of it must be clear.
2. When the chicken has cooled, strip the meat.
3. Toast the pistachios briefly in a small pan, just until you can smell them, then set them to one side. Now toast the curry powder in the same way.
4. Mix the yoghurt, mayonnaise, curry powder, and mango chutney, season, and stir through the chicken.
5. Tear the mint and coriander. Chop the pistachios into small pieces. Whack the back of the pomegranate with a wooden spoon over a bowl to release the seeds. Gently stir the herbs, pistachios and pomegranates through the chicken, and serve.
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 medium carrot
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
2 ribs of celery
A handful of mint
A handful of coriander
3 tablespoons of mango chutney
75g peeled and shelled pistachios
2 level teaspoons medium curry powder
150ml natural yoghurt