“On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me: "Three French hens ….".
Why French? I guess because “Three Bresse chickens” doesn’t have the right ring to it? To the English, a “French Hen” was an alternative name for a particular variety of bantam chicken with frizzled (i.e upcurled) feathers. I have no idea why. Does the rhyme mean three of these little birds? But why hens? Old laying hens are not much use for anything other than making chicken stock – mind you, that’s a pretty noble end. What would we do without chicken stock? Live on ice-cream I suppose.
Once upon a time, recipes and bills of fare specified the type of fowl that made up the dish – capon, pullet, hen, rooster etc. Now we mostly just get “chicken”, because mostly the bird is factory reared to standard specifications, and is culled at a standard age. Chicken-rearing practices would have to be drastically re-discovered for us to regularly see these old names on menus – but in case it does happen, here is a short summary:
Hen: the female of the “common domestic barnyard fowl” i.e Gallus domesticus; usually refers to a bird beyond its pullet stage.
Pullet: a young female, at the beginning of her egg-laying life (about 20 weeks) but has not yet moulted.
Rooster, Cockerel: the male of the “common domestic barnyard fowl”, most usefull in the household to make Cock-Ale (a useful beverage to restore your fighting spirit).
Capon: A castrated cock. Capons are bigger, fatter and more docile than their intact brothers, so desirable on all counts to farmers and the first two to cooks (they make the best roasters, apparently).
In case the chicken-rearing revival does not become widespread, but you have a yen for roast capon on Sundays, here is how to caponize your birds, as told by William Ellis in his marvellous Country Housewifes Companion (1750)
To make Capons. This operation belongs to the country housewife. I know a yeoman living near Hempstead in Hertfordshire, whose estate is but about fifty pounds a year, that makes (as it is credibly reported) fifteen pounds a year by the sale of capons; his wife and daughter cut the young dunghill cocks, but I don't suppose they were all bred on his farm, for some for this purpose make it their business after harvest-time to go to markets for buying up chickens, and between Michaelmas and Allhollantide caponize the cocks, when they have got large enough to have stones of such a bigness that they may be pulled out, for if they are too little, it can't be done; and to know when a cock is fit for it, he should be pretty well grown, have a good comb, and be well fleshed, for these signs shew they are bigger than those of leaner fowls. To cut them, the cock must lie on its back, and held fast, while with a very sharp knife she cuts him only skin-deep about an inch in length, between the rump and the end of the breast-bone, where the flesh is thinnest; next she makes use of a large needle to raise the flesh, for her safer cutting through it to avoid the guts, and making a cut here big enough to put her finger in, which she thrusts under the guts, and with it rakes or tears out the stone that lies nearest to it. This done, she performs the very same operation on the other side of the cock's body, and there takes out the other stone; then she stitches up the wounds, and lets the fowl go about as at other times, till the capon is fatted in a coop, which is commonly done from Christmas to Candlemas, and after. Now if the stones are but big enough, as they lie to the back, they may be safely taken out with a greased fore-finger, without much danger of killing the creature, but when they are too small there is danger. This way of caponizing a cock, I have had done at my house for my information, by a woman deemed to be one of our best capon cutters, else it would have been a difficult matter for me to give a description of it; for they that never saw such an operation, and venture at it, must expect to kill one or more, before he or she gets master of the science. And indeed it is for want of this knowledge that the art of caponizing fowls is not so much practised as formerly; but as I have given a pretty good account I hope of it, I am of opinion the art will be revived, and capons sold in greater plenty than ever.
I stand firmly by my statement about the indispensibility of chicken stock, so our foodie Twelve Days of Christmas now reads:
“On the third day of Christmas, my good friend sent to me
Three boiling hens,
Two chocolate tarts,
And a partridge in a pear tree.”
Susanna Kellet, whose book A complete collection of cookery receipt… was the source of yesterday’s recipe, knew some other things to do with boiling hens.
A dish of Boiled Hens.
Dress your hens for boiling, fill their bellies with the yolks of hard boiled eggs, and boil the hens; when enough, lay them in order on a dish, then pour sauce over them, and thin slices of bacon round.
Sauce for Boiled Hens.
Take some good turnips, pare them, cut them into square small dices, and boil them in milk and water, but don’t boil them too much; then drain them, and have some bacon boiled and cut like turnips, and lay them together; then shred some lemon and oysters, and melt some butter; when it is ready, put all into it, and pour it over your hens; you may boil square pieces of bacon, to lay in the middle of the dish.
Tomorrow’s Story …
The Fourth Day of Christmas.
Quotation for the Day …
The dinner table is the center for the teaching and practicing not just of table manners but of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of polite society except the minuet. Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”)
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