I first became aware of capon at Oundle School, many, many years ago, but it was not until recently that I tasted it. Now I’m a fan.
In the Oundle School Chapel, there are some wondrous stained glass windows, the most famous being those by John Piper. These were installed during my time there in the mid-50s and unveiled by the late Queen Mother. She later spoke to me in the village churchyard where I was standing on a tombstone and trying to get her picture, but I was too tongue-tied to make any sensible response.
I believe that was my first attempt at a selfie and the last time I have been at a loss for words.
However, the windows that entranced me more than the Pipers were those in the Ambulatory, designed by Hugh Easton and illustrating Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. What charmed me were the small details added to the windows, such as a realistic snail here or a ladybird there, that looked as though they had wandered by accident onto the scene.
Here’s the poem in part:
As You Like It, Act II: Melancholy Jaques to Duke Senior
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
… Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
… And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined …
… Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616
I suppose we most identified with the whining schoolboy, though I don’t recall much whining at Oundle, where we were taught the skills of self-sufficiency and leadership. But because we were always hungry, the thought of the Justice feasting on good capon was almost too much for us. Fortunately, right after Sunday Chapel we all rushed back to our houses for Sunday lunch, typically something roasted to a dry crisp, but with jolly good roast potatoes. We were never served roast capon, though we had plenty of chicken, and I seldom, if ever, dwelled upon the difference for more than 50 years.
When we were preparing the second season of the television series Market to Table, Chef Dan Frenette suggested Capon Supreme, that is a deboned breast with a truncated wing. Off we went to Upper Cut Meats at the St. Lawrence Market, with our video crew to record the proceedings, to obtain the succulent making for our feast. Suffice to say the offering was a triumph with the crew who inhaled the results of Dan’s cooking as soon as the cameras were turned off. You can find the story and the recipe in Market to Table: The Cookbook.
This weekend, harking back to my schooldays, I’m determined to try a Sunday Roast, and having never roasted a capon, I do a trial run mid-week with a small chicken. It is juicy and succulent, but being a broiler chicken it has been specially bred for fast growth, and was slaughtered when it was just four pounds at about seven weeks old. I think my recipe has added some flavour.
Back to the St. Lawrence Market we go and pick up a fine capon, just over seven pounds in weight and suitable for four.
The origin of caponised roosters is very old, certainly back in ancient Roman times, when they were thought of as a food for the wealthy. The benefit of castrating the eight-week-old cock, is that he grows up to become twice as fat as a similar female by the time he is ready for market at 10 months. And since he has had his source of aggression removed, capons can be raised together while roosters would certainly peck each other to death. A capon is also less gamey tasting than a cockerel and the meat is moist, tender and flavourful. There is a good layer of fat under the skin, with a high proportion of white meat.
Capons are very popular in France and Italy, where certain regions specialize. In northern Spain, roast capon is a Christmas treat.
I serve my roast capon with roast potatoes cooked in duck fat and flavoured with garlic, lemon and thyme. I served broccoli cheese with my mid-week chicken but think Brussels sprouts work better with the capon. All the recipes are in the book. Since I knew the chicken needed help in the flavour department, I also prepared stuffing balls. The capon needed no such assistance.
- 1 fresh capon (about 3.25 kg / 7.25 lb)
- 50 g / 4 TBSP / ¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 whole garlic
- 1 lemon
- 2 TBSP EVOO
- freshly ground black pepper
- sea salt
Preparation and cooking
- Preheat the oven to 200°C / 390°F.
- Put soft butter into a bowl and add the finely grated zest from the lemon. Cut the remaining lemon in half and set aside. Set two thyme sprigs aside. Pick the leaves off the remaining sprigs. Mix the thyme leaves with the lemony butter and season with salt and pepper.
- Place the capon in a roasting tray and rub all over with flavoured butter. Drizzle with olive oil. Cut the garlic bulb in half horizontally and stuff into the cavity of the bird, with the two lemon halves and two thyme sprigs. Roast in the oven for 1 hr and 15 mins, or when your meat thermometer reaches 74°C / 165°F. (When the capon is cooked and golden brown, the juices should run clear when pricked and a leg should move easily).
- Leave the capon to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
- Serve with lemon and thyme roasted potatoes and green veggies. Sauceboats of chicken gravy and cranberry sauce are also excellent accompaniments.
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Categories: Market to Table