Move over Chicken in a Basket. Bring on Chicken à Baguette!
Of course “Chicken à Baguette” makes no sense, English-wise nor French-wise, but it sums up this butterflied chicken cooked with aromatics and herbs over slices of baguette. The crunchy baguette slices are the really yummy feature, making this method worth a try and giving a result more delicious than using a bread-based stuffing.
I will claim it as an original recipe, however, there were several sources of inspiration, in particular, my mother’s roast chook.
Olive’s roast chicken
My mother, Olive, cooked wonderful roast chickens. She always used the same method, stuffing the cavity with a bread crumb and onion mixture, which included a good dose of dried mixed herbs. Some spuds and other root vegetables would be scattered around the large baking dish and then all would go into the oven.
Why the mouth-watering outcome?
There is no doubt that the chickens she cooked in those days tasted like chicken. However, there was evidence in the 1960s that battery-raised chickens available to the masses then weren’t the same as those from the farmyard. I came across two examples. One was a 1960s cartoon from the British magazine, Punch, which showed a production line of chicken carcasses on a conveyor belt and as each one went by it was injected with a giant syringe labelled “chicken flavour”. Another indication, several years later, was a newspaper article about complaints in a European country that some chicken tasted of fish. Why? It seems the chickens were being fattened on fish meal!
In my childhood years on the Tamar at Hillwood (Tamar Map), and early teen years at Swan Bay, chicken was a luxury in the caviar stratum and the only way we had chicken was for Dad to breed his own. They would be free range in every sense, roaming around the neighbouring paddocks during the day, with their feed topped up by vegetable scraps from his garden.
When it was decided we would roast one of the chickens – generally a very, very special occasion – a certain amount of planning and action was required. The theatre – of getting a live chicken from the coop to the chopping block on the wood heap to the scalding water in the copper boiler in the laundry for plucking – was distressing for us kids but mesmerising at the same time. Did my father enjoy all that? Probably not, but when there are eight children in a family, most of them living at home, jobs like that are done out of necessity. The older kids would help with the plucking; the younger ones would have chased the flapping headless chook around the wood heap and beyond. After the de-feathering, my father would get out his long-bladed scout knife to gut the carcass and it wouldn’t be long before we would be recoiling from the smell of the innards.
Servings would be very small but worth the trouble for everyone. Was it the chicken itself that gave the splendid result or was it Mum’s cast iron wood-fired oven, giving a smokey effect to her roasts?
When my parents moved a few kilometres closer to Launceston, to Windermere, the hens didn’t go with us and our chicken dinners would become rarer. Occasionally, in exchange for some of Dad’s vegetables, one would be secured from neighbours who did have chooks: it would arrive headless but still feathered, necessitating the plucking and gutting duties.
The move to Windermere had given Mum her first electric oven. But her roast chickens were still delicious. Maybe it was because we were such a poor family and chickens were such a luxury that our memories have been elevated out of proportion.
Years later her roast chooks from store-bought chickens were still pretty yummy even though there were diminished natural flavours in the flesh.
There is no doubt that the stuffing was critical to the result of Olive’s roast chickens. When it was scooped out it would have taken on a grey colour but it would be very moist and it would taste of herbs. Dad didn’t grow a large selection of herbs (see Our Herb Garden) and so they relied on packet dried mixed herbs, with flavours of rosemary and sage seeming to dominate (if it was available, fresh sage from the garden would be added).
Thus the beginning of my obsession for chicken with bread and herbs!
There were at least four other contributing factors.
The first was in Manchester some years ago when our host cooked a remarkable roast chicken. It had herbs everywhere – inside, on top and in the baking dish.
The second was coming across the occasional recipe involving pieces of bread somehow incorporated into the roasting.
The third was experiencing the hot-roasted chicken with bread salad at Zuni Café in San Francisco.
The fourth, and the clincher that brought it all together, was a recent reference by celebrity chef, Colin Fassnidge, to his discovery of roasting a chicken atop half a sourdough loaf with plenty of herbs, the bread ending up soft on top but crunchy on the bottom.
Thus evolved the idea for this recipe where you can “ditch the spuds and stuff the stuffing”.
We could say (tongue in cheek of course) that it is a “deconstructed roast chicken”. Thus, instead of stuffing a whole bird, the chicken is butterflied and then roasted, thus still providing the elements of the stuffing via the baguette, aromatics and herbs.
The chicken remains very moist while the bread develops a rich crunchiness on the bottom, with a flavour reminiscent of rich garlic bread. The bread and chicken are complimented by the flavours of olives and leek. And you get a wonderful dose of herbs, with the flavour of the bay leaves shining through.
The leftovers are delicious too, even though the bread softens somewhat. Everything can be reheated gently. Alternatively, you have the makings of a great bread based salad using the baguette and vegetables. If you want to adopt some aspects of the Zuni bread salad, cut the bread into smaller pieces, remove the bay leaves, add some toasted pine nuts and dried currants, some sliced salad onion soaked in a little vinegar and toss with some rocket or other suitable greens and then dress carefully with oil, vinegar and salt and pepper.
For the recipe, click here: Chicken À Baguette – “Deconstructed” roast chook!