Coronation Chicken is an elaborate dish that the girls of the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London prepared for the queen upon her elevation to the British throne 60 years ago. Over the years, what began as Poulet Reine Elizabeth, became a sandwich filling that lost its lustre.
The British press is having a wonderful time in the days leading up to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, to be celebrated next weekend. They are contradicting one another about the origins of the dish, how it should be made, and logging any sightings: The Daily Mail spotted a gelateria in Soho serving Coronation Chicken ice cream.
By the time I was a student at the London Cordon Bleu, the dish we learned was also called Chicken Elizabeth. It was endless work, but beautiful and delicious. The recipe involved poaching a chicken, cutting it up, covering it with curried mayonnaise (made by hand in a bowl with a whisk), and setting it on a colorful rice salad. The dish has elements of Indian cookery: curry, the flecked rice, and the way the rice is cooked in lots of water. We also learned Chicken Philippe, presumably a more masculine variation, simply a roasted bird, cut up, seasoned with vinaigrette, and set on a tomato salad.
You may think chicken is ordinary, but in 1952 postwar England, chicken was special occasion food, and when you bought a bird, it probably came with the innards intact and feathers all over. Rosemary Hume, the founder of the London Cordon Bleu, is credited with inventing the dish for the queen’s celebration lunch. “Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery” (1963), a slender paperback volume by Hume and Muriel Downes, which students sometimes referred to, has a nearly identical recipe called Chicken Mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise went with many cold foods on the English table. It was spooned over hard-cooked eggs, rolled up fillets of sole, or passed as a sauce. Coronation mayonnaise is quite a pretty pink. You make a kind of sweet, thick Worcestershire sauce with curry powder, tomato juice, apricot jam, and vinegar, and let it bubble down until it’s intense, then blend it into the mayonnaise and use it to coat the chicken.
The rice salad is a wonder in its own right. The individual elements — strips of tomato, carrots, cucumbers, peas, toasted almonds, golden raisins (I add yellow bell pepper to fill out the rainbow) — are not difficult, but it takes time to assemble. The Cordon Bleu technique for rice was to cook it like pasta, so the grains do not absorb the liquid, in a pot with half a lemon to keep the rice white. At the end of cooking, nothing sticks together and it looks stunning n the bowl and on the plate.
Chicken Philippe isn’t as fussy. You just roast a whole bird, cut it up, and set it on a simple tomato salad. I took good notes when I attended cooking school, but cannot find a single one on this dish, though I distinctly recall preparing it.
My fellow Cordon Bleu alum Nathalie Dupree, a Charleston, S.C., author and cooking teacher, doesn’t remember it. Nor is it in the Penguin book, or in any of the other volumes the school directors wrote. I don’t think the recipe is a figment of my imagination.
If I ever meet the queen, after the curtsy, I’ll ask.