King Henry IV's 420-Year-Old Chicken Recipe Still Sounds Pretty Tight

Make the French monarch's 'poule-au-pot' tonight.

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Feb 27 2018, 8:01pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Folks, I know what you’re thinking. Today's the day we've all been waiting for: It's the 424-year anniversary of the crowning of King Henry IV of France, who presided over the Kingdom of France from the late 16th through the early 17th centuries. Sounds like the perfect excuse to take a lil' marche down memory lane and make some poule-au-pot, or chicken in a pot.

I recommend you eke out the time to make this admittedly labor-intensive dish, the preparation of which involves stuffing a fat hen with a slaw of meats, herbs, and lard and cooking it in a tub of vegetable broth just until the skin begins to detach from the bird.

These demands are worth it; consider the testimonials from everyone from Elizabeth David to Rick Stein, who've spoken vividly of its comforts since the monarch first endorsed it. The recipe has attained the status of legend over the years, with a dense mythos surrounding it.

"I desire that every laborer in my realm should be able to put a fowl in the pot on Sundays," Henry IV reportedly declared one day in 1598, 420 years ago, just as his kingdom was emerging from a series of ruinous religious wars. He'd reportedly been so disturbed by the conflict that he sought to restore order via a process that began at the kitchen table.

"It is a succulent dish too much neglected in these days, when dainty living is tending to replace the rustic cooking of the good old days," a recipe writer who went by the nom de plume Babet would write in 1893’s 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef and the Original Recipe for Stewed Chicken. The recipe in the book purports to be a direct copy of the one the King ate.

Babet recommends taking a "good, fat hen" before boning the head, neck, and wings. You'll cram the cavity with a stuffing made from ham, lard, bread crumbs dipped in milk, salt, pepper, spices, sweet herbs, parsley, and garlic, all mixed with egg yolks. (Babet suggests "chestnuts and slices of truffle" may also be put in the stuffing, though this deviates somewhat from the King's recipe.)

Truss the bird with a string so its contents don’t come tumbling out, and submerge the chicken into a gently simmering bath of broth with vegetables. Though Babet would not specify which vegetables, James Beard's recipe would involve leeks, onions, carrots, turnips, and celery. Cook the meat just until the skin begins to detach from the bird. The younger the bird, Babet observes, the quicker this separation will occur.

Remove the bird from the stove and lay it on a bed of parsley or cress, then drizzle it with salt. What results from this is a stuffing that should be firm enough to slash into slices. Don’t dump the broth, Babet would warn, for it’s rich enough to savor.

"Taste it," Babet would recommend of the chicken, "and become convinced of King Henry the Fourth's solicitude for the well-being of the peasants of France." It’s a meal fit for a king, a peasant, and anyone in between.

Everyone, the King understood, deserves to eat a fat, boiled hen. More than four centuries later, we agree.

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