On 2 June 1953, at two o’clock in the afternoon, 350 foreign dignitaries sat down to eat the Coronation lunch after Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. They were served Poulet Reine Elizabeth: a dish now better known as corona chicken.
In the 70 years since, it has gone from a celebrity favorite, to a lurid staple of the 1970s, to an ever-popular supermarket sandwich filling and a staple of bad times.
Where did it come from? One common origin theory is that coronal chicken was based on a recipe created for the Silver Jubilee of George V. Others mistakenly say it was served to the Queen (it wasn’t).
Instead, Rosemary Hume and her students at Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in London created Poulet Reine Elizabeth specifically for the coronation feast for visiting dignitaries. Constance Spry, the association’s florist who was in charge of organizing the lunch, also played a part, although she did not play as important a role as she is often given credit for.
“[Hume] came up with the dish and then two days later she said it was inspired by a canapé in Mrs De Salis’ cookbook Savouries à la Mode, which I looked at, and there is a slight resemblance,” says the historian food, Dr Annie Liath. “I think we can give credit [Hume] largely for themselves.”
Food for the crowd
It was created with practicality in mind. Lunch was served in the Great Hall of Westminster School, which had limited cooking facilities. The menu needed to be suitable for “a large number of guests with different and unknown tastes”, in Spry’s words.
“They needed to come up with dishes that were really crowd-pleasing, impressive enough but didn’t break the budget, and things they could prepare without a kitchen,” says Gray. They settled on a cold dish of chicken in a creamy, lightly curried sauce which, on the day, was washed down with Krug Champagne.
Blingy or budget?
The other myth that tends to spread is that crown chicken was chosen as a budget-friendly option that home cooks could easily replicate: a recipe that struck the balance between “luxury and austerity” in post-war Britain. .
Gray says that’s not the case. “It’s hard to overplay how much of a blingy dish this would have been at the time … this is a nation that was still suffering from rationing,” she says. most people ate chicken; it was very expensive.”
The chicken was lovely and curry was unheard of so, to begin with, it was not a dish that many people cooked at home. That changed with the publication of Constance Spry’s Cookbook in 1956, which included the recipe for chicken crown.
As home cooks emerged from the austerity era, demand grew. “It’s one of those dishes that first became popular outside of Britain, then came back in,” explains Gray.” It wasn’t immediate, but certainly by the 1970s it was pretty much embedded in the psyche as a cold dish for mass catering.”
Twists and interpretations
Hume and Spry’s original recipe starts with a whole chicken poached in water and a splash of wine with parsley, thyme and bay. The sauce is made from chopped onion, curry powder, tomato puree, red wine, bay leaf, lemon, apricot puree and whipped cream. There’s a surprisingly long list of ingredients, and the end result is very different from the bright yellow crown chicken you might associate with a subpar buffet.
“Obviously, it took off very quickly,” says Gray. “It wasn’t like the original dish, which is really nice.” Now it’s often just cold-cooked chicken with mayonnaise and curry powder… and sometimes pineapple or sultanas, which really wasn’t the case.”
The chefs adapted it freely over the years. Nigella’s irreverent take includes mango, lime, chilli and a little gem lettuce. Heston Blumenthal adds coriander and nigella seeds. Gordon Ramsay calls for it with crème fraîche and, again, mango. Meanwhile, Yotam Ottolenghi turned in a crown chicken and broccoli bake. But the Hume and Spry original is a classic for a reason.
How to make Coronation chicken
To make a coronal chicken for six or eight, just as it would have passed the lips of the royal requests since 1953:
First, poach two chickens for 40 minutes in water with a carrot, a splash of wine, thyme, bay leaf, parsley and four peppercorns. Cool in the liquid then remove the meat from the bones.
Set it aside and make the sauce. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan and add 2 tbsp of chopped onion. Cook gently for three minutes and then add a spoonful of curry powder. Cook for another two minutes.
Add one spoonful of tomato purée, a glass of red wine, ¾ wine glass of water, one bay leaf, and bring to the boil. Then put a pinch of salt, sugar and pepper on each, juice of ½ lemon and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Strain and cool.
Slowly add the mixture to 450ml mayonnaise, then stir in 1-2 tbsp of apricot purée (made from soaked and cooked dried apricots). Season again – the sauce should not be too sweet. Finish by adding 2-3 tbsp of whipped cream.
Add just enough sauce to lightly coat the chicken, then eat it with a rice salad.