My college buddy and I huddled in darkness beside an old wooden fence, shivering and cursing the farmer who had put us up to this. A sliver of moon shone thin light upon a stone farmhouse where the farmer and his wife sat, no doubt in the glow of a roaring fire. The same trickle of moonlight illuminated vague white specks in the field beyond: fresh field mushrooms, ripe and ready for the picking. We could pop over the fence and get them once it got dark, the farmer had told us. But because the field belonged to a neighbor, he could not.
CLump, CLump, CLump. I looked at Rick and saw fear in his eyes. CLump, CLump, CLump. A dark figure raced past, retreating to a far edge. The farmer had failed to mention the bull that must be loose in that field.
Earlier, Cornwall had been so sane. We’d taken a leisurely walk to the village, perched high on the cliff above Mullion Cove, and where we went by turns to buy a plump chicken from the butcher’s, vegetables from the green grocer’s, and a loaf of granary bread from a bakery where the girls wore funny white hats. We’d come back to the little cottage that had been converted from one of the farm’s outbuildings to chop veggies while we cackled away in our imitation of the broad local dialect. “Ooh, doon’t that chicken smell tysty,” my friend said mockingly, as we banged the door shut behind us.
CLump, CLump, CLump. “You go. He’s over there now.” “No, you go.” In a burst of energy, we vaulted the fence, fell upon the little white spots and gathered a couple of dozen, slashing quickly with our pocket knives. And then the dreaded sound. CLump, CLump, CLump. We clambered back up and over as the dark shape came at us in the night. I swear I felt the breath from that beast as I heaved myself to safety.
Next morning, the sun melted away the dew and sparkled on the distant sea. Still full from our roasted chicken dinner and the thrill of stolen mushrooms, we emerged sleepily to greet the golden furze that swept to the horizon where rocky cliff edges lurked. In our packs we had fistfuls of chicken sandwiches to last the day, and a couple of bottles of Best Cornish Brew to slake the thirst of a September’s hike to the Lizard.
As we passed the paddock beside the farmer’s property, we did a double take. There, chomping on new hay, was our bull of the night before – a gentle old horse as placid as the deep dark sea. He looked dolefully in our direction.
“Ooo, er. That ‘un’s a wild one, innit?” my friend asked in his newly minted accent. We just about fell on the ground laughing. Then we adjusted the straps on our packs, turned our faces to the brilliant sunshine, and headed off down the path.
Woodfired Roast Chicken
Makes 6 generous servings
1 fresh roasting chicken, about 6 pounds
1 pound of carrots
½ pound of celery
½ pound of onion
3 Tablespoons olive oil or butter
2 heaping teaspoons dried thyme
2 heaping teaspoons herbs de Provence
1 heaping teaspoon dried sage
Salt and Pepper
2 cups of chicken stock
Note: Because the breast of chicken often dries out during roasting, I roast chicken upside down, turning it breast-side up only for the last hour. The result is a moist and tender breast that is somewhat flattened in the process. To solve the flattening problem, I set the chicken into a form-fitting romertopf lid that has been soaked in water. Any oven-safe bowl would do, or can be omitted as desired.
Prepare the chicken: Wash and pat dry the chicken. Discard innards. Coat with olive oil or butter, sprinkle with herbs and salt and pepper. For best flavor, put into a plastic bag and let sit in the fridge for 6-8 hours or overnight.
Chop half of the carrots, the celery and the onion into 1” chunks. Stuff the chicken with half of this.
Set the unchopped carrots in the bottom of a 9”x12” ceramic roasting pan, and put the rest of the chopped veggies around them. Put the chicken upside down onto the bed of carrots, and pour the broth around it, being careful not to wash the herbs off.
For conventional oven roasting: Preheat oven to 350º, and set rack to the notch below midway. Turn oven temperature down to 325º, roast chicken for 1 ½ hours and then turn chicken breast-side up and roast for one hour more, basting once or twice.
For roasting in a woodfired oven: See Moderating Heat in a Woodfired Oven. Pulse your oven if cold, as specified. Once your oven has a stable temperature of 350º to 400º and a bed of coals about 10”x14” and 4” deep, your oven can hold ample heat for the 2½ hours necessary for roasting.
Move the bed of coals to one side of your oven and sweep the floor clean on the other side.
Put the roasting pan into the oven on the clean side and as far back as you can reach. Roast the chicken upside down for 1 ½ hours, turning the roasting pan around midway. If your oven temperature is a bit high, leave the door open 1” for this time. You can check this either by oven thermometer (range of 350º to 375º is fine) or by the heat of the door handle (warm but not hot to an ungloved hand).
Take the chicken out of the oven, turn it carefully over, and roast for another hour, basting twice. During this time, close the door all the way.
Final Notes: This chicken is moist, tender and delicious, as my kids will tell you. Serve with garlic mashed potatoes, dinner rolls and steamed broccoli. Yes, kids – broccoli.
Oh, right. And fresh field mushrooms, sautéed with butter. Follow the south coast of England almost to Penzance, and right there near Mullion Cove there’s this great crop of them in a field. Just don’t let the farmer know you’re coming, or he might sic his horse on you!