What I particularly love about coronation chicken is the fact that it’s not much to look at, yet it was conjured into existence purely because it was inspired by royalty. Surely royals eat fruits carved into swans, mousses, and vegetables suspended in aspic? But here you have what is essentially a quick, cold chicken curry. Maybe on a bed of lettuce if you’re lucky. I’ve always had an issue with beige foods but coronation chicken really is the end of the line. No amount of angles or lighting can help. After pulling its hair out in frustration, food photography is given the day off.
A lot can happen in a year. Could we have guessed 11 months ago during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the street parties and bunting, the Union flags and cheering crowds, and as I attempted to make my own clotted cream then give up and made ice cream instead, that within months the country’s 96-year-old matriarch would have died and we would be crowning her son in her place? Considering her age, we really should have seen that coming. Charles, the oldest Prince of Wales there ever was, is finally King. This Saturday, he’ll don a rather impressive crown and wave in that jaunty way, rather like he’s folding egg whites in the sky, reserved for royalty. And I, for one, can’t wait.
I have that bunting I missed last year which I plan to swathe over the curtain rails because what the living room really needs is a dose of Laura Ashley kitsch. I will probably bake scones – without the clotted cream this time, I don’t have the stamina – but there are the English breakfast tea bags on hand stored in an appropriate and very cute Paddington tea caddy, and I’ll be holed up for the full five hours of royal telly, alongside a republican Frenchman and my family via Skype. And we’ll of course eat coronation chicken. Kitsch hasn’t seen anything yet.
But why, why am I so excited for this regal occasion which is argued to no longer have a place in modern society? Well, for one, I live for the drama of it all. Hand me the popcorn people. The twists and turns of this royal saga are better than any episode of Hollyoaks (the most sordid of all the soaps – and we’re talking kidnap, baby swaps, you name it).
But, beyond my crippling Achilles heel for royal gossip, the coronation is a moment in history. That swirling sea of flags along with its accompanying rumble and roar as crowds line the streets and pack the Mall under Buckingham Palace’s balcony will commemorate an occasion we haven’t witnessed in 71 years. Who alive today can remember the last coronation? And will there be another? Are we watching the evolution of a 1,000-year institution carve a niche for itself in the 21st century? Maybe. Could the King’s plant-based coronation food foreshadow the culinary culture of his future reign?
The King’s social media has released the recipe for his new tarragon, spinach and broad bean ‘coronation quiche’, yet it doesn’t quite cling to British tastes as much as its forbears. Quiche has become as ubiquitous to British cuisine as it is to French, so it’s no surprise it’s the chosen delicacy of the British monarchy, but whoever said it was the culinary version of an April drizzle couldn’t have put it better. At least the monarchy knows their country well enough to choose the perfect culinary pathetic fallacy.
But coronation chicken on the other hand – it simply slots into place with the whole shambles of it all, its reputation bringing to mind retro buffets, the chicken jaundiced with turmeric, a big bowlful, gloopy with mayonnaise. Best of all, photograph it with the flash on. Now, that’s what I call a British dinner party.
This was the coronation dish designed in 1953 for the Queen’s ascension to the throne, named ‘Poulet Reine Elizabeth’. Its combination of apricot jam, mayo and the newly exotic yet completely inauthentic curry powder, a generic spice blend invented by the British, allowed the average home cook to conjure up a very Anglicised version of those previously unknown Indian flavours. The chicken was poached with a bouquet garni and red wine, and the sauce blended that delectable apricot jam, curry and mayo mixture with tomato puree and whipped cream – am I making you hungry yet? Oh and don’t forget the raisins. Because, when in doubt, add dried fruit. Forget our modern sensibilities for a moment: at the time, coronation chicken was the height of dining sophistication.
Today, we can dress it up however we want, I mean the Guardian poach their coronation chicken in saffron, but at the end of the day, it’s chicken mixed in curry powder mayo and has become a canteen staple. This fancy food has become frumpy.
And yet. Coronation chicken is a dish with retro-vibes, a captured moment of a heyday when food photography wasn’t the be all and end all to eating well. There is no pretence: a cold, brown chicken salad of dated tastes that is still delicious today (maybe without the whipped cream), which just like the coronation, is a moment in history.
So, really, what could fit the coronation any better?
Updating Coronation Chicken: Roasted Grapes
I won’t pretend this recipe is the replacement of a classic. For a dish that has made such an imprint on British tastes, can I even use ‘updated’ with a straight face? All I can say is that it’s ridiculously tasty, and that my mum is very clever because she substitutes coronation chicken’s raisins for roasted grapes, considerably juicier and more substantial to the original dried version.
Nothing in coronation chicken should work together but somehow, like contrasting colours or the bffs Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, they just do. Nowadays, the apricot jam has been substituted for the far more suitable Indian condiment mango chutney; my mum leaves out the curry powder altogether having found a spicy mango chutney instead. Fruit-and-meat combinations are nothing new here, and coronation chicken revels in it, its arms slung over its two fruits. I told you this dish was barmy.
And, as if it couldn’t get any better, don’t forget all that mayo! With it comes the creaminess, soothing spicy and fruity edges. Gaylord looked sceptical at first, then downright worried when he saw the grapes – he does not share my love of meaty and fruity. Pork with apple is wasted on him. However, turns out coronation chicken is not! Together we gobbled down sandwiches stuffed with creamy coronation chicken and roasted grapes, with a crisp layer of lettuce squashed in there too, and then he took another filled baguette for his evening work shift. Two coronation chicken sandwiches in one day strikes me as a success.
King Charles can enjoy his quiche, but this coronation I will be munching on coronation chicken and delighting in the grub Britain does very well – kitsch.
Coronation Chicken with Roasted Grapes
- 260 g red grapes including the stem
- Olive oil
- Zest of ¼ lemon
- 2 cooked chicken breasts shredded
- 5 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 tsp mild curry powder
- 1½ tbsp mango chutney
- A handful of fresh coriander leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/395°F. Place the grapes on a lined baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and season with the lemon zest and salt and pepper. Turn the grapes over a few times to coat in the seasoned oil, then, when the oven is hot, roast for 20 minutes until the fruit is wrinkled, swollen and some have collapsed. Set aside to cool.
- In a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mango chutney, curry powder, and some salt and pepper. Stir in the shredded cooked chicken breast, and then add the grapes picked off their stems and the coriander leaves. Fold into the mixture and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Serve in sandwiches with some crisp lettuce.
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