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Coronation Chicken: The UK culinary classic

KIMBOLTON, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – Angela Wood proudly recalled the poached chicken in creamy curry sauce recipe that she helped create for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and which has since become a British culinary classic.

Coronation Chicken – also called Poulet Reine Elizabeth – is now so popular it can be found in supermarket ready-meals, pre-packed sandwiches and on the pages of many recipe books.

“It’s not the same recipe though. It’s just mayonnaise with a bit of curry put in,” Wood, 89, said laughing as she talked about some modern versions of the famous dish.

Wood was only 19 when, as a student at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Winkfield, near Windsor, west of London, she was asked to perfect a recipe created by the school’s director, Constance Spry.

Spry had been given the task of putting on a banquet for foreign dignitaries after the coronation on June 2, 1953.

“Constance Spry walked into the kitchen and said ‘this is something we’re thinking of doing for the coronation… we’ll keep testing it until we get it right,’” said Wood at her home in the picturesque market town of Kimbolton in eastern England.

Angela Wood with a copy of the Constance Spry Cookery Book
ABOVE & BELOW: ABOVE & BELOW: A copy of the lunch menu served at lunch for dignatories attending the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II; and the Coronation Chicken recipe in the Constance Spry Cookery Book. PHOTOS: AFP

“Knowing that it was going to be foreign dignitaries from all over the world, she decided that it had to be slightly spicy but not over spicy,” she told AFP.

Another constraint was that the dish had to be prepared in advance so had to be cold, added Wood, looking elegant with short white hair, fuchsia-coloured lips and a matching cardigan.

The ingredients also had to be available in the United Kingdom (UK), where, even for a royal banquet, imported food was limited after World War II because of rationing.

So Wood set to work in the kitchen, experimenting “two or three times a week, for possibly three or four weeks”.

“We were forever boiling chickens,” she said. After constantly tweaking the ingredients, they found the right balance.

Wood showed AFP the original recipe, published in an old edition of the British gastronomic classic The Constance Spry Cookery Book.

The chicken should be poached with a bouquet garni, while the sauce is a reduction of chopped onions, curry powder, tomato puree, lemon juice, among others.

The mixture is then cooled and added to mayonnaise, lightly whipped cream and apricot puree.

“It’s a strange mixture. And people do the first bit and taste it and it’s just so horrible and strong,” she laughed. “I mean you can’t believe that it can be right.”

Wood is sometimes asked why she didn’t use mango, as is used in many of today’s versions of the classic.

“Well, we didn’t have mangoes… we didn’t have Greek yoghurt,” she said, adding that “nowadays people add all sorts of things”.

The dish was described on the banquet menu, written in French, as Poulet Reine Elizabeth and was served to the 350 foreign guests with a rice salad containing peas and herbs. It followed a tomato and tarragon soup and trout.

Strawberry galette was served for pudding.

Wood never pursued a professional career as a cook, and instead ran the family farm after she got married. But for special occasions, she and her daughter still sometimes prepare the recipe that has assured her place in British culinary history.

She said she is “honoured” to have helped create the British classic, which earned her a reception with the Queen at the royal estate in Sandringham in February to mark her 70 years on the throne.

To celebrate the monarch’s record-breaking Platinum Jubilee, which will see four days of celebrations in early June, Britons have been invited to create a dessert for the Queen.

“It’s quite surprising how it (Coronation Chicken) certainly stood the test of time and I hope whoever wins the pudding, the same thing happens,” said Wood.

It would be a fitting tribute to “the most incredible reign” and a woman who “dedicated her whole life to the country”, she added.