I wrote this back in 2015. Originally I’d tweeted throughout the Christmas cookery week with updates of the work being done, then after the dust had settled from the event itself, I used the now-defunct Storify service to tie all the tweets together and flesh out the background and information that 140 characters wasn’t nearly enough space for.
With Storify set to be binned I managed to save the whole thing by exporting to a PDF and there this has languished for a few years…now re-purposed for you lucky people to enjoy. As it was originally a Twitter story, I’ve done my best to reconstruct it as per the original, dated pop culture references and all…
From December 27th 2014 to 1st Jan 2015 the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace were once again brought to life with Tudor cookery. Over the 6 days we made three cokentryce, this is what happened and why.
So what’s a cokentryce, and why make 3?
There are a number of surviving medieval recipes for making a cokentryce such as this one from Harleian MS 279:
Harleian MS.279 .xxviij. Cokyntryce. – Take a Capon, & skald hym, & draw hem clene, & smyte hem a-to in the waste ouerthwart; take a Pigge, & skald hym, & draw hym in the same maner, & smyte hem also in the waste; take a nedyl & a threde, & sewe the fore partye of the Capoun to the After parti of the Pigge; & the fore partye of the Pigge, to the hynder party of the Capoun, & than stuffe hem as thou stuffyst a Pigge; putte hem on a spete, and Roste hym: & whan he is y-now, dore hem with yolkys of Eyroun, & pouder Gyngere & Safroun, thenne wyth the Ius of Percely with-owte; & than serue it forth for a ryal mete
[Take a capon and scald him [in boiling water] and cut him in half at the waist. Take a pig and scald him and gut him as the capon was, and cut him in half at the waist too. Take a needle and thread and sew the front of the capon and the rear of the pig together and the front of the pig and the rear of the capon together then stuff them both as you would stuff a pig. Now put them onto a spit and roast them until it is nearly cooked then coat with a mix of egg yolks, ginger and saffron followed by parsley juice then serve it for a royal meat]
“Clearly that’s a goose and not a capon…can’t you guys even follow a simple recipe?”
“at least you got the pig right…but hang on! I can’t see a boiling pot and they don’t loook pre-boiled and to cap it all, that’s a medieval recipe and this is supposed to be a Tudor kitchen so what the hell is going on here??”
The recipe for cockentryce is an excellent example to use to explain what our job in the kitchens at Hampton Court actually involves.
We’re employed to look at the kitchens of Henry VIII and to put them into context, both of the building and also in history. That means looking at ingredients, recipes, equipment, people, and documents….pretty much everything that might impact on our understanding of those rooms. We’re interested in process much more than taste or end result. It’s simply not possible to produce something that we can say tastes like it did in the past, we can though say that this is how it was made, and these are the techniques used and this is how it could have been done in this space. We are at times though limited by ingredients and equipment and the requirements for cockentryce are a good example of this. To fully understand we need to look at the rational behind the recipe and look at what it is calling for you to make. Although ostensibly telling you to “just” cut the two animals in half and sew the opposing front and back halves together that is missing the subtext which is the creation of, in the case of the recipe, two new animals. If you just cut ‘n shut the two halves together you end up with what Heston Blumenthal created for his Feasts programme…something that needs somewhat of an extensive tummy tuck to get rid of all the excess bunching at the join as clearly the two vastly differently sized animals are never going to marry together neatly
Heston’s version may be following the recipe, but it’s missing the spirit that I belive was intended. When you see fantastic creatures in medieval manuscripts, such as this image from the Luttrell Psalter, they look fantastic but they also look feasible with all the parts joining together in an animalistic way. Many of the illustrations are not simply fantasies constructed by the illustrator but were images of what were believed to be real animals that existed somewhere in the world, they may not have been roaming around Europe but roam they most certainly did to the medieval mind; this is what the recipe for cokentryce is trying to create…an actual animal, not simply 2 halves sewn together for comedy effect. It is supposed to be as real and believable to the medieval diners as the dinosaurs in Walking with Dinosaurs are to modern TV viewers; we know they aren’t real but we expect them to look realistic and I belive the same held true for the cokentryce recipe.
so it isn’t just a case of cut and sew if you want to make a “realistic” looking animal, the old adage of measure twice and cut once is true when making a cokentryce and it really helps if the ingredients are of a similar girth, something which causes slight confusion when ordering from the butcher as meat tends to be sold by weight not waist size!
It is also this need to create a new animal that means making 2 as stated in the recipe isn’t particularly simple.
To make a good looking end result the two halves need to be cut and joined so they look good and hold together so Adrian and Marc united them with a scarf joint favouring the front of the goose and rear of the pig in the cutting. This method allows the animals to be cut in such a way as to leave more skin than rib and flesh to give more area for sewing. This meant that out of each pair of animals only one new one could be created as the opposing halves were not suitable for joining and were used for spare parts on the main beast. I suspect that with more practice they would be able to end up with 2 new animals from each pair; practice as they say, makes perfect.
“Yes…but why the goose when the recipe calls for a capon?”
Capons are castrated roosters; the castration is done in one of two ways, either chemically or physically. Chemical castration of fowl has been illegal in the EU since the 1990’s…residual chemicals in the end product do the same to male consumers as they did the bird, and physical castration is illegal within the UK on animal welfare grounds, though it isn’t illegal to import true capons from areas of the EU where physical castration is still legal. This tends to mean that most birds labelled as “capons” in the UK are simply fat chickens, and they haven’t grown in quite the same way, aren’t quite the same shape, have too much breast and not enough leg and aren’t in great supply. Put simply, the goose is a substitute that we feel is acceptable given the restrictions on obtaining true capons and they have a similar measurement to the sucking pigs that we chose to use.
“ok, so you went with a goose that’s fine…but this is a medieval recipe and you’re in a Tudor kitchen….”
Well, leaving aside the argument that the first half of the sixteenth century is still medieval, as I said before, it’s almost the perfect recipe to showcase what we do in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace…research, reconstruction, investigation, interpretation, experimentation and history all seen through the lens of food. We have no evidence to say that Henry VIII ever saw this recipe presentented before him, but likewise we can’t say it wasn’t. Just because the source material here is from the previous century it doesn’t mean it was only made in that century; cokentryce can be found in fourteenth century recipe collections and there’s plenty of evidence to show that recipes from earlier centuries were included in recipe collections in the sixteenth century and after all, the cokentryce according to Harleian MS 279 is a “ryal mete”. so what better place to make one than in a royal kitchen?
“and the boiling….or lack of it?”
quite simply we don’t have pots big enough to fit a goose or pig into! I also suspect that the scalding process referred to in the recipe is the scalding done as part of the slaughter process to make it easier to pluck or dehair the carcasses rather than an extra one done as part of the cooking process. Having tried scalding chickens before placing them onto a spit for roasting, their skin shrinks quite extensively which whilst making them look more rounded and smoother and neater to the modern eye, also has the effect of increasing any cuts or splits in the skin which, combined with the shrunken skin would make sewing the halves together that much more tricky than it already is. Oh, and before you ask about the stuffing, the flavour wasn’t important to us, the process was so we used bread as a stuffing. This had the advantage of being quick to insert, held the body out to a suitable dimension and held the animal reasonably firmly on the spit, which is the principle role the stuffing plays, but without the time consuming process or cost of mincing pork to use as a stuffing.
Sewing the halves together isn’t a quick job; the grease and fat in both animals starts to melt and makes everything extremely slippery.
and when it’s sewn together you need to think about how the beast will be posed, so in this case a stiff wire was inserted through the mouth and down the neck to provide an armature to allow the head and neck to be positioned well.
once on the spit, pins, wire and thread were used to position the legs and wings with the aim of cooking it in pretty much the final position it was wanted to be in as once cooked it would not be possible to move any of the limbs without breaking them off.
again, during the coating process we deviated somewhat from the recipe as previous experience has shown that using a green batter is more successful than simply coating with the parsley juice.
So the end of day 2 and the 1st of the 3 planned beasts was complete. It was good….but not good enough for Adrian and Marc, they wanted more, bigger and better and along with Jorge, set to discussing what improvements the mk2 variant would have.
Jorge wanted to apply more colour and use different colouring techniques with the next version whilst Adrian and Marc wanted more legs and a better, more natural overall look to the 2nd….and a tail, a much better tail than the one provide by the pig.
“our butcher has just delivered the meat for the last cokentryce that’ll be started tomorrow. He left with the look of ‘what the hell have you done with my beautiful meat??’ on his face”
here you can see the tail that Marc made from the back skin of the goose,stitched into shape and cut so that as it cooked and shrank it would hopefully form a serpent/dragon like appendage.
Adrian was keen to try and add scales to the pig skin and used Jorge’s spare pen knife, which was the finest and sharpest blade to hand, to cut scales into the skin. His thinking was that as the pig skin cooked and formed crackling, the scales would be revealed like the score lines in a traditional roast pork joint and that these would then show up through the thinner batter that was to be applied at the last stage of cooking….it didn’t work.
So 2 down…1 to go, and as with the previous ones, the guys wanted bigger and better. They wanted to take what they had learned from the previous 2 (which were the first ones they’d ever attempted) and improve on that for the last. Chances are this would be the last cokentryce that they would get to made for a while so they wanted to go out in style.
unfortunately by the time it was all finished it was gone half past three and what little light there had been in the kitchens had gone. This meant that the flimsy cameras I had were simply not up to the task of taking pictures of the finished beast in all its glory. Suffice to say it had a golden bill and toes along with silver and gold tips to the dorsal spines that, much to Adrians shock had stayed in during the cooking process; a miracle considering they were just spare rib bones poked through the skin and into pieces of bread stitched into position beneath.
The paper wings were ok, but it would have been much better had they been real feather wings…something for the future perhaps?
You’ll notice that I’ve got all the way to here and not actually mentioned what it or they tasted like; possibly one of the more popular questions we were asked over the week. Well it is what it is, the front tastes of goose and the back pork, because that’s what they are and I suppose we should take it as a compliment at having produced a sufficiently convincing series of animals that people would ask what it tastes like.
It’s also worth noting the reaction that our visitors had to the whole thing, which was very positive. Young and old seemed to be genuinely fascinated and even those who expressed a negative opinion for whatever reason, were still interested enough to ask questions and discuss the process and history of the dish. We all spoke to hundreds of people for great lengths of time and all in all had a great, if extremely tiring 6 days making these three animals. It was a genuine team effort and one I am very proud to have been a part of.
…and so with all the visitors having left, the washing up done and the tables and equipment returned to the store room, all that was left was to sweep the floor and think about what we might like to do for future events.