Peacock Subtlety: Part 2
The first time I wrote about peacock on the table of kings and the very well-to-do, the cooking was completely theoretical, with stand-in stunt ducks and a preserved skin. http://roxalanasredactions.com/?s=peacock
This portion covers the messy, gory cooking parts of actually turning a freshly killed peacock into a dish once served to kings.
Part 1: The Bird
This is the freshly killed peacock (not by me). Short story, I went to a farmer’s house to pick up a couple of wild peahens, with fertilized eggs and baby chicks dancing through my head. When we got to the Middle of Nowhere, Texas my daughter and I were greeted with the sounds of gunfire — a bit disconcerting. We took a look around, staying on the polite side of fences, and saw the peahens and goose we were originally after. While we were petting said friendly goose and his love interest, contemplating which recipe he would best be served in, up comes the Farmer Lady with a gorgeous and dead Indian Blue Peacock. She announced, “Here’s your cock!” I couldn’t do much more than say thank you and pay the lady for her magnificent cock and the two hens. Sorry, the goose wasn’t going to fit in the car once I had the peacock with his tail in my car. It’s not that big a car!
I did ask about how she could sell her birds so cheaply. Seems the peacocks were let loose in the wild 20 some years ago and have flourished in the tropics of Texas — so much so that the resulting multiple flocks have become a nuisance for the ranchers and not just the beautiful lawn and table ornaments they were originally destined to be. My win, their loss.
An apropos poem for this bird handed to me, the cook.
“Peacock: you admire him, often he spreads his jewel-encrusted tail. How can you, unfeeling man, hand this creature over to the cook?” (Mart.XIII-1XX/Faas, pp. 295)
During the time of Henry VIII, this bird would have incredibly expensive due to their breeding habits. Based on my searches, a live bird’s pricing from a reputable breeder is usually on the order of $600. The scarcity of peacocks caused the pricing to be such that only nobility could afford such a rare beauty for their yard or table. So what I paid for this magnificent bird was a fluke, due to the nuisance the random flocks had become, rather than the norm. This bird: much more affordable.
The peacock, unlike the chicken, was not a common bird. (thecoolchickenreturns.com) Unlike the chicken, a peahen will only lay 3-9 eggs a year while a single chicken might lay up to 200 eggs each year. (Damerow). This cuts down on the number of pea chicks born and raised to maturity in any given clutch or year. Low numbers with great beauty, much like gold or rubies, raises the price of the peacock out of the common man’s reach.
A quick bit of history on the eating of peacock. Peacocks were valued throughout history, not only for their feathers but for their flesh. Poems and songs were written about these gorgeous feathered fowls and their likeness graced plates, vases and even thrones. They represented different ecclesiastic values to different religions. This bird, with its jeweled-eyed tail, was coveted for both the look and symbolism represented in its display. From a throne in India to the tables of rich Romans to paintings and vases in Persian Empire; even to the table of English royalty, many used this favored bird in recipes and decoration.
“Such subtle creations could be comprised of just the edible, or as the more elaborate a set up became, a combination of paper mache and lumber to support a larger and even grander display. These decorative subtleties were for powerful displays and less about eating, with the production being undertaken by carpenters, metals smiths and painters and very little with chefs.” (Martins)
This is a research paper on cooking a beautiful period dish served to royalty . It covers the trials and tribulations of making this display happen in today’s modern world, which lacks an abundance of peacocks, as well as the “workarounds” needed to display the dish in a mostly period manner.
Part 2: Skinning
With the bird in hand and period recipes dancing through my head, the first hurdle for this kingly presentation presented itself.
The Romans, French and English all agreed that the peacock’s skin and feathers should be saved to redress the dish(s).
Cure the skin with coarse sea salt, so that it dries out a little, and wash it off just before you dress the roast bird in it…” (Faas, pp. 297).
And when it is cooked, it must be re-clothed in its skin and let the neck be nice and straight or flat; and let it be eaten with yellow pepper. (Goodman, M-30)
“Take and flay off the skin with feathers and tail, leaving the neck and crest still upon the bird, and preserving the glory of his crest from injury when roasting by wrapping it in a linen bandage. Then take the skin with all the feathers upon it and spread it out on the table and sprinkle thereon ground cinnamon… Then take and sew him again into his skin and all his feathers, and remove the bandage from his crest. Brush the feathers carefully and dust upon them and his comb gilding to enhance his beauty. After a while, set him upon a golden platter, garnish with rosemary and other green leaves, and serve him forthwith as if he were alive and with great ceremony.” (Craig, pp. 157)
Yeah, the skinning part wasn’t quite as easy as these books made the undressing of the bird sound. So here are my step by step pictures and running dialogue. Let the messiness begin!
This is the messy part. There is no other way to say this than ewww! If you’re squeamish stop right here because the pictures just increase in gore factor. Now, I’ve skinned and plucked more than a few feathers. I raise period birds for eggs and meat. Getting a bird ready for the oven is nothing new; however, trying to preserve the skin of a peacock with a 5 foot tail while your child and cat are trying to “help” is…exceptional. I’m pretty sure period cooks didn’t have this issue. The cats would know better than to be under foot.
So the first thing I learned is that this bird had some opalescent scales on the skin.
I don’t know if this is normal, never having cut into the skin of a peacock before; however, I can say that these scaly flakes were gorgeous but made the first few attempts to cut into the skin a real bitch.
Once the initial cut was made, progress was made on separating the belly and leg skin from the bird.
Those legs were almost as long as my forearm and had wicked claws. I can see how these things are able to fend off both raccoons and foxes. The peacock was only a couple pounds lighter than the period Spanish Black turkey I raised to make a Kraken subtlety. That turkey managed to survive the Great Flock Killing of 2015 (by a couple of damn raccoons). So yes, these birds can and do survive quite well with their natural defenses.
Back to the skin. The skin had to be cut around the knee joint in a circle then sliced open. Trust me, there was no way I was going to be able to pull the leg through and I didn’t want those clawed feet anywhere in the final cooked dish. I disjointed the bird at the knees to make removing the lower legs easier.
The wings I left on the bird skin. I attempted to take the skin off the wings but realized it was too fragile there for the amount of force needed to pull the many tendons/ligaments away from small bones. Here I disjointed the wings and cut them at the inner breast joint.
As you can see the blood is pooling close to the neck where it was shot. I had to drain the blood off a few times as I was making the cuts. This is where I say either wear clothes you don’t mind getting bloody or skin in the buff so you can jump in the shower when it’s done.
Also note this bird is not covered in what we would consider a tasty amount of fat, as seen on modern day factory farm chickens. This bird was wild. It has a healthy amount of flesh and just enough fat along the skin and tail, yet the bird would never be considered as factory raised.
The skin from the back was actually the hardest to peel off. I had to use my hands and a very small sharp knife to get into this area without slicing up the skin. This portion of the deskinning was the hardest. This skin felt thinner, though it really wasn’t, and the fat levels almost non-existent as I separated the skin and flesh.
A portion of the neck and head were left on. All the period recipes say to leave the head on with feathers. I couldn’t keep a pig’s ears from burning when I did a period pig head (http://roxalanasredactions.com/stuffed-boars-head/), so I was not about to risk the head of a peacock to the oven and my “linen bandaging” skills (which are nonexistent). I had to do a quick improvisation. 2 inches under the head remained intact in the skin while I took out the rest of the neck. The meat portion of the neck in the cooking had skewers to keep it upright for when the remaining neck and head were placed on top of the cooked portion.
Part 3: Cooking
Most cooks have had the chance to work with their meat of choice before starting a major project. Peacocks are as rare as hen’s teeth here so I had to adjust on the fly. I started with the period recipes for the Romans:
Sometimes the peacock…were roasted. (Faas, pp. 297).
Another good Roman recipe; unfortunately this one does not include the redressing:
Grind chopped meat with the center of fine white bread that has been soaked in wine. Grind together pepper, garum and pitted myrtle berries if desired. Form small patties, putting in pine nuts and pepper. Wrap in omentum and cook slowly in caroenum.” (Giacosa, pp. 90)
Peacock/Swan “Kill it like goose, leave the head and tail, lard or bard it, roast it golden, and it with fine salt. It lasts at least a month after it is cooked. If it becomes mouldy on top, remove the mould and you will find it white, good and solid underneath.” (Taillevent, pp. 23)
Re-clothed Swan (substituting Peacock) “…in its skin with all the feathers. Take it and split it between the shoulders, and cut it along the stomach; then take off the skin from the neck cut at the shoulders, holding the body by the feet; then put it on the spit, and skewer it and gild it. And when it is cooked, it must be re-clothed in its skin and let the neck be nice and straight or flat; and let it be eaten with yellow pepper. (Goodman, M-30)
If you want to roast a peacock on a spit, get an old one between October and February. After it has been killed let it hang for eight days without plucking it and without drawing it; then pluck it dry…When it is plucked draw it…..put one end of a hot iron bar into the carcass through the hole by which it was eviscerated being careful not to touch the flesh: that is done to remove its moistness and bad smell. To stuff it use the mixture outlined in Recipe 115, or else sprinkle it with salt, fennel flour, pepper, cloves and cinnamon; into the carcass put panicles of dry fennel and pieces of pork fat that is not rancid, studded with whole cloves or whole pieces of fine saveloy. Blanch it in water or sear it on the coals. Stud the breast with whole cloves. (The breast can also be larded or wrapped in slice of pork fat as is done with the pheasant in Recipe 135). Roast it over a low fire, preserving the neck with its feathers as is done with the pheasant. Serve it hot or cold as you wish, with various sauces … (Scappi, pp. 207)
The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, recipe #139 suggested for pheasant or peacock.
If you want to roast the small ones on a spit, as soon as they are caught pluck them dry and draw them; leave their head and feet on. Stuff them with a little beaten pork fat, fresh fennel, beaten common herbs, raw egg yolks and common spices – which is done to keep them from drying out. Sew up the hole and arrange their wings and thighs so they are snug. Sear them on coals. Wrap them, sprinkled with salt and cloves, in a calf or wether caul, or else in slices of pork fat with paper around them…When they are done serve them hot. (Scappi, pp. 206)
Take a peacock, break his neck, and cut his throat, and flay him. The skin and the feathers together, and the head still to the skin of the neck, and keep the skin and the feathers whole together; draw him as a hen, and keep the bone to the neck whole, and roast him, and set the bone of the neck above the broach (spit), as he was wont to sit alive; and above the legs to the body, as he was wont to sit alive; and when he is roasted enough take him off, and let him cool; and then wind the skin with the feathers and tail about the body, and serve him forth as he were alive; or else pluck him clean and roast him, and serve him as though do a hen. (Renfrow, pp. 572).
“Take and flay off the skin with feathers and tail, leaving the neck and crest still upon the bird, and preserving the glory of his crest from injury when roasting by wrapping it in a linen bandage. Then take the skin with all the feathers upon it and spread it out on the table and sprinkle thereon ground cinnamon. Now roast the peacocke and endore him with the yolkes of many eggs, and when he is roasted remove him from the fire and let him cool for a while. Then take and sew him again into his skin and all his feathers, and remove the bandage from his crest. Brush the feathers carefully and dust upon them and his comb gilding to enhance his beauty. After a while, set him upon a golden platter, garnish with rosemary and other green leaves, and serve him forthwith as if he were alive and with great ceremony.” (Craig, pp. 157)
“A peacock may also have the skin and feathers removed as described above when it may be stuffed with spices and sweet herbs, and finely chopped savory meats, and roasted as described in the foregoing recipe. Then replace the skin and feathers when it should be “served…”…with the tail of the peacock was covered with leaf of gold, and a piece of cotton dipped in spirits was put in its beak. This was set fire to as the bird was brought in Royal procession to the table with musical honours.” (Craig, pp. 157-158)
That’s quite a few ways to cook a peacock; however, most of the recipes had a few common elements: the peacock, larding and salt while roasting. Clove is mentioned, as is roasting on a spit. I went with ‘less is more’ for this ad hoc project.
The body, freed from the skin, had to be rinsed to remove various bits of feather and blood before I could start to dress it in bacon. As you can see, there is a good amount of meat on the bird. This peacock was only a few pounds shy of what a wild turkey would dress out as.
I dithered for about 3 minutes, trying to visualize redressing with the skin. I went with the easier task and put the bird butt side up, wrapping it all in bacon.
Now when I said I had no preparation for this, I meant it. I had 30 seconds warning I would be coming home with a peacock for cooking and no time to prep prior. I was lucky to have a side of bacon on hand in the freezer to start the wrapping project. That was the good news. The bad news was that the bacon was thin and not anything like the thick cut bacon (2lbs would have been the amount needed) that I really would have preferred. You live, you cook, you learn.
Butt side up and the breast still needs to be covered in bacon. Note the toothpicks. This is what was holding the bacon to the downward facing breast. Pull those out when you have finished cooking. Trust me. I forgot this part and had to pull everything off before restarting to redress the bird. The neck was being held “Upward” by long wooden skewers. Metal skewers would have worked as well. I grabbed what I had on hand while trying not to panic over the time the skinning took me to get this bird prepped for the oven.
On reviewing the recipes, I see that I missed the ‘sprinkle with cloves’ portion of the recipe. Depending on the recipe, the bird would have been studded with whole cloves or sprinkled with salt and ground cloves, then wrapped in calf caul (organ fat) or larded with bacon. I missed the clove portion. I was a tad flustered. Next time though!
This is how the bird looked coming out of the oven.
I made sure it was well covered in bacon as I wanted a juicy bird. Once you go bacon you’ll never go back. Bacon-wrapped makes the best, juiciest bird(s) I’ve ever tasted and I was really hoping this would be the case here. I was trusting Scappi to know his shit on the period cooking. (That’s Bartholomew Scappi, the period Italian cook to the popes. Read the first research paper here (http://roxalanasredactions.com/?s=peacock) with the recipes.)
4th Part: The Skin
Now we get down to the fastest but oddest part to this dish. The skin. Most people like eating crispy skin from their fowl. This dish would rather show the skin and the feathers off than cook it without the feathers. I can see this…and was able to implement this with a bit of kitchen magic. In period when a swan or peacock was skinned salt or cinnamon was used to keep the skin from going bad. (Craig)
Here is the unprepared skin. It’s still red and gooey. I had no idea how else to do this, though I suspect more time should have gone into cleaning out the blood and flesh, then wiping down with a damp cloth to clean up the leftover bits and blood. This was a huge learning curve. Going with the flow here.
Here I’ve coated the skin in sea salt as done in period. (Faas, Giacosa, Apicius, Taillevent, Goodman, Scappi). Salt deters bacteria in an exceptional way. Cinnamon has some of the same properties but not in the same “dry everything out so it dies screaming in agony” way. So, salt is what I used to keep the skin from going bad on me (no one wants salmonella!). The skin was then left out until the peacock was done.
I pulled out thread and needle for when the time came to attach the skin back over the bird.
I wanted a fairly strong thread, so went with the quilting thread. Nope, I did not have silk or linen thread on hand for this. Again the “30 seconds choice of taking a peacock home” came into play and there was a lot of ad-libbing to be done.
It turned out I wouldn’t need these items — but more on that in the next section.
Part 5: Redressing and Serving Forth
So here we are at the final scene to this hastily-prepared dish. The peacock is placed butt-up on a nice hand thrown pottery plate. The actual type of dish this would be served on is not mentioned; however, it would be safe to say that the higher on the table the dish went, the better quality and metal the plate for the peacock. I did not have a silver or gold tray quite big enough to fit this magnificent bird so I used a hand-thrown pottery plate.
This is sooo looking like a snail at the moment. (I may consider doing a chicken dressed as a snail for a subtlety at some point, but not today). We’re about to fix this look. Yank out all the toothpicks but keep the skewers in place. You’ll need the skewers to keep the neck skin in in place and hold the head up. Yanking out the toothpicks keeps the keeps the skin from being pierced. Now in period, a subtlety could and would have metal or wooden pieces in and around to keep the illusion going. Subtleties could consist of just the edible or, as the setup became more elaborate, a combination of papier-mâché and lumber to support a larger and even grander display. These decorative subtleties were for powerful displays more than about eating, with the production being done by carpenters, metals smiths and painters and very little by chefs. (www.reference.com/browse/subtlety).
Here I purposely change how the re-dressing goes. In period the skin would be put over the dish. The bloody fleshy very salted raw skin over the cooked body. That’s a great way to give someone food poisoning. I think I’ll pass on that as I’m the one eating this bird tonight! As you can see I’ve covered the peacock in foil. You could use parchment paper (a closer period alternative) however I had this on hand (Notice a theme here?).
Once the bird is wrapped for your protection, slip the skin over the body with the neck and head going over the cooked neck portion.
My shy peacock is gorgeous! The skin did not have to be sewn as I thought it would. The skinning opened the flesh enough that it draped like a perfectly fitted dress over the body. The tail feathers are long enough that propping them against the wall works to display his regal tail. However the tail portion of the cooked body will need to be covered by silk or a cloth as the skin won’t fit all the way over the butt while the neck and main body are covered. In period, not just in my kitchen, they would have used a wire form to hold the tail in place, probably wrapped around the cooked peacock, hiding under the skin but with a wire “fan” to press against the tail and hold it up for a glorious display. That’s how I would have done it if I were presenting this dish to a head table.
Once the peacock has been displayed, take it back to the kitchen and slice the meat onto a plate for serving.
The reasoning is that you don’t want to yank off a salty bloody skin over food that someone is going to have to eat. No one really wants to see that side of the dish. Remember this is FOOD MAGIC, a dish of awe and inspiration. No need to let the populace (or the king) see how this surprise is really done.
Part 6: Conclusion
Monarchs put feasts to good use as ways to make a vivid point, like inducing guests to pledge allegiance to a planned crusade. An example of this was when Philip the Fair, at the Feast of the Pheasant, showcased a giant Saracen entering the feasting hall leading an elephant (there is some question about the edibility of said pachyderm), with a knight (Oliver de La Marche) playing the role of the captive Eastern church. (Wheaton, pg. 8/Martins) Another example of the royal use of subtleties involved Henry VIII. George Cavendish wrote about a feast sponsored by the great Tudor king in such waxing enthusiasm for the feast “…I do both lack wit in my gross old head and cunning in my bowels to declare the wondrous and curious imaginations in the same invented and devised.” (Henisch, pp. 236/Martins). The feasting was a display to move men and women into wondrous thoughts, glossing over a harsh reality of court life: a grand and compelling gesture.
A subtlety could be a simple item such as a redressed peacock on proud display or stuffed fowl riding roast piglets, or as elaborate as a full pastry castle with trees containing candied fruit, with mythical beasts glazed and stuffed, as well as musicians playing music from the limbs of the trees. Allegorical scenes were not uncommon. Some scenes could be “Castle of Love” or “Lady of the Unicorn”. (Martins). Taste wise. I was terrified that this bird was going to be tough and nasty. Wild caught game is allowed to “age” for a reason. Aging a bird (including chickens) gives the flesh the opportunity to mellow and break down for a more tender and tasty bite. The peacock had to be done as soon as I walked through the door. There was no chance to age the meat (the skin wasn’t going to fit into my freezer at all with that gorgeous tail intact). When I took the first bite I was pleasantly surprised. There was a slight gamey taste but not overwhelming or nasty. The meat was a bit chewy but not jerky tough. Honestly, I expected rooster tough as this was a full grown male in his prime. The meat was tasty and juicy, which I think can be attributed to the bacon wrapping.
I find this to be a dish best made and served on site if it were for an event. The skin would be hard to keep from going bad unless frozen (not sure that would work) in a chest freezer as my upright was too small for this skin and tail feathers. As for being able to replicate this on demand, I can’t. Unless there are male peacocks on hand the day of an event AND the steward and cook are willing for me to kill, skin and gut a peacock in their kitchen while working around a 5 foot tail this isn’t going to happen at an event either. This was a onetime shot or at the whim of the Farmer Lady when she shoot another peacock. I learned a lot, but realize that the hardest part is knowing the limitations on what is possible in the future for a display.
There was a bit of ad-libbing on my part for this whole dish, with a steep learning curve on how to skin and redress. Overall though, I’m pretty damn pleased with the recreated period presentation. The skin came out magnificently and I had the main ingredients to keep the dish (mostly) true to the original.
Craig, E., (1953). English Royal Cookbook. Andre Deutsch Limited, London.
Damerow, G., (2010). Raising Chickens. Storey Publishing.
Fass, P., (1994). Around the Roman Table. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1994.
Giacosa, I., (1994). A taste of Ancient Rome. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Good man of Paris.(1395). Le Managier De Paris.
Renfrow, C., (1998). Take a