25 October 2013

Suffritto di Pollastri—Renaissance Saffron Chicken

We promised you a recipe from De Arte Coquinaria, the famous cookbook written in the 1460’s by Maestro Martino da Como, chief cook to the Pope and many other nabobs of Renaissance Italy. I found one I liked but it’s had to wait until I could find a bottle of agresto, known as verjus here in France. They still make it nearby in Périgord, where some folks deglaze their pan-fried foie gras with it, but usually you can only find it in the fancy shops.

Here’s what Maestro Martino was cooking for the nabobs:

Per fare un suffritto de carne, o de pippioni,
 o de pollastri, o capretto.
In prima nectali molto bene et tagliali in quarti, o vero in pezzi 
piccholi, et poneli in una pignatta a frigere con bono lardo voltando 

spesse volte col cocchiaro. Et quando la carne è quasi cotta getta
fore la maiore parte del grasso de la pignatta. Et dapoi togli de
bono agresto, doi rosci d'ova, un pocho pocho de bono brodo et 
de bone spetie, et meschola queste cose inseme con tanto zafrano 
che siano gialle et ponile in la dicta pignatta inseme co la carne et
 lasciali bollire anchora un pocho tanto che tutte queste cose ti parano 
cotte. Dapoi togli un pocho pocho de petrosillo battuto menuto et
 ponilo insieme col ditto soffritto in un piattello et mandalo ad tavola. 
Et questo tale soffritto vole essere dolce o agro secundo il gusto 
comuno o del patrone.

(To make a soffrito of meat, or of pigeon, or of poultry, or kid

First clean them very well and cut them in quarters, or else in small pieces, and put them in a pan with some good lardo, turning them often with the spoon. And when the meat is almost cooked throw out most of the fat from the pan. And then take some good verjus, two egg yolks, a little bit of broth and some good spices; mix these things together with enough saffron to make it yellow and put them in the pan with the meat;  let it boil until they seem well cooked to you. Then take a little bit of chopped parsley and add it to this soffritto on a platter and send it to table. And this soffritto may be sweet or tart depending on common agreement, or the boss’s taste.)

Dead simple, and intriguing; we’ll try it with a chicken.  A soffrito, which now means frying a mix of onion, garlic, parsley etc to start a dish,  for Maestro Martino was just a technique of slow-frying. For lardo he would have meant rendered lard, or maybe something like bacon grease.  I’m going for duck fat.  Like everyone else here, I have a tub of it in the back of the fridge for frying potatoes (This is always part lard anyhow; they have to top up the duck fat to cover the confits. And it’s still the best stuff in the world)

The ‘good spices’? Martino doesn’t say so we’ll have to guess from the medieval repertoire.

But before I can get the recipe down, the computer tells me someone has already done it for me—an absolutely wonderful site called Medieval Cuisine, run by Euriol of Lothian (Cassandra Baldassano) and her friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism. You can see her interpretation of the recipe here; mine differs only slightly.

a chicken, cut in fourteen pieces
duck fat, or lard, or olive oil
two egg yolks
chicken broth (cube is fine)
1 dose saffron
ground cloves (6) and ground cardamon (seeds from a dozen pods); black pepper and 1T or more ginger

Fry the chicken on medium heat until it’s almost done, with some colour on the skin. Reduce the fat if you must. Mix the other ingredients and throw them in, turn the heat down low and finish. Garnish with the chopped parsley.

Fine-tune this to please your taste (or your boss’s). If you dust the chicken with just a tiny bit of flour first, you’ll get a thicker sauce. After frying, start with just a little chicken stock, and add more if it’s getting dry. As Martino hints in the last sentence, the quantity of verjus is critical. A quarter cup will make it tart indeed, a little like lemon chicken. If you don’t want that, use less, and perhaps add a bit more of the ‘good spices’. Or you might temper the verjus with a teaspoon of sugar; we might try that next time.

And there will be a next time, ‘cause this was a treat. Maestro Martino, grazie mille!


  1. Goodness what a yummy post! This puts my Julia Child wanderings to shame.

    Without Googling it, I suppose there's an app/book/website/etc out there devoted to papal foods throughout the ages – have you looked into that? No-frills Francis supposedly likes baked skinless chicken, fruit, salad and the occasional glass of wine ....

  2. Silly me! Of course there is.


    1. Thanks, Jeremy! Very interesting link, although no mention of one of the few dishes actually named after a pope, the Timballo di Bonifacio VIII (veal mince, ham, sausage meatballs and macaroni, baked in a sauce of roosters' crests and wattles, livers and sweetbreads and mushrooms fried in lard). But those medieval popes sure could put it away. There were 3000 guests at Clement VI's coronation feast in Avignon, and they devoured 1,023 sheep, 118 cows, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,446 geese. 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses and 50,000 tarts. That's over 16 tarts a person!

  3. Just came across your blog today, what a wonderful interpretation you made. Thank you for acknowledging my work and my site.