Some Baby Boomers will still remember the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 as their first glimpse of a television broadcast – an event as exciting, if not more so, than the coronation itself. But for people of all ages, that day lives on in an unusual fluke of a dish, created at the last-minute to feed 350 foreign dignitaries after the historic service at Westminster Abbey.
The dish is of course coronation chicken, pieces of cold, cooked chicken doused in a mayonnaise flavoured with the addition of “curry” seasoning, popularised during British rule in India.
On the day of its first ever outing, coronation chicken appeared under the French name of Poulet Reine Elizabeth, on the official coronation banquet menu beside “potage de tomate de l’estragon, truite de rivière, galettes aux fraises, mousse au citron” and a 1945 Krug champagne.
French food was a byword for sophistication and the favoured cuisine of coronation chicken’s creators, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, founders of London’s L’Ecole du Petit Cordon Bleu cookery school (now Le Cordon Bleu). But as rationing rumbled on they could not rely on their beloved, but extravagant, French food.
They needed a dish that would suit the austerity era and a small(ish) budget. It would also need to be served cold to hundreds of guests, in a room – the great hall of Westminster School – which didn’t even have a kitchen.
How did this picnic-style event on such an important day come about? Buckingham Palace officials in charge of the day made one colossal mistake during their preparations. They failed to anticipate how many people would want to travel to London to celebrate their new Queen.
London and all its best restaurants and hotels were flooded with advance bookings. So busy were the typical establishment locations, such as The Dorchester Hotel, that the palace could not find a venue for its own celebration.
It wouldn’t do to ask the esteemed guests to bring a packed lunch, as athletes at the 1948 Olympics had been advised to. In a moment of panic, David Eccles, the minister of works in charge of proceedings – though Prince Philip was the official chair of the organising committee – wrote to his good friend Constance Spry.
He was stuck, he confessed. He hadn’t a clue what to do or where to turn. It looked as if Britain’s chance to show off on the world stage might collapse into international embarrassment. “Let me and Rosemary Hume do it,” Spry replied. “Find us a room somewhere near the Abbey, and we’ll do the rest.”
Spry was not a caterer or a restaurateur. She was a respected society florist who revolutionised the way that flowers were used and homes decorated, in Britain and beyond, though her style has been derided by more modern tastemakers such as Terence Conran and James Dyson.
She was already the coronation florist and was busy organising distinctive blocks of scarlet, gold, pale blue and white blooms for Westminster Abbey, outside the palace and along the processional route. Spry had the approval of the royals and had been florist for the new Queen’s wedding, having also done the flowers for the Duke of Windsor’s 1937 wedding to Wallis Simpson.
Hume was the cook, really, but Spry was the one who shared the original recipe for coronation chicken in her 1956 The Constance Spry Cookery Book. It calls for the poaching of two chickens before they are jointed, deboned and cut into pieces.
The chicken is mixed with (not drowned in) a cream of curry sauce made from ¾ pint mayonnaise, two or three tablespoons of lightly whipped cream, oil, red wine, onion, apricot purée, a squeeze of lemon juice and one dessert spoon of curry powder.
It wasn’t much of a curry sauce at all, although it has become known as one. And although Spry put it in the section of her book titled Curries and dishes flavoured with curry, she also explains: “I doubt whether many of the three hundred odd guests at the coronation luncheon detected this ingredient [the curry powder] in a chicken dish which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nut-like flavour in the sauce.”
Spry’s coronation chicken recipe has all the hallmarks of watered-down Indian food, the sort often made by Indian cooks to please their British masters. Why she chose this nod to the lost empire so soon after Indian independence, and on such an important day for the monarch, is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was her little joke.
Notably, there are no sultanas in the original recipe, although they appear in many more recent interpretations. Angela Wood, a Cordon Bleu student who helped to develop the dish, made it for the Queen at Sandringham earlier this year, and was told it makes regular appearances at the palace.
“Why people put sultanas and things like that [in coronation chicken] I just can’t think,” she said on This Morning, as the country prepared to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee.
Coronation chicken was a go-to buffet party dish until well into the 80s. It might have consisted of bland, overcooked chunks of skinless chicken floating in a sea of readymade mayonnaise, seasoned with a sprinkle of curry powder and paprika.
And yet for many years, serving coronation chicken, shorthand for kitsch and nostalgia, could also leave one wide open to ridicule. It was loved by the aspirant middle classes but loathed by those bourgeois enough to think it old hat or inauthentic.
It’s impossible to say what King Charles III will eat at his coronation. No doubt he will want to do things differently to his mother, but chicken, mayonnaise and a bit of spice rarely disappoints.
Coronation chicken may have been in and out of favour over the years, but we can all celebrate the fact it survived its time in the wilderness and delighted new generations all over the country at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond and Platinum Jubilees.
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