Before she moved, Ginia lived in a fifth-floor flat in a 1920s block near Piazza Vittorio. And before she gave up cooking, she used to make a bollito every other Sunday. Once upon a time, that meant an almost full bollito misto alla Piemontese, as her father taught her to make it: beef (muscle, tail and tongue), also a whole chicken and cotechino sausage boiled separately, then served together, sliced and steaming hot, with a selection of sauces. But as the years went on and the house emptied – of children, also of her husband (she threw him out) – her bollito streamlined.
By the time I met Ginia, the bollito was half a chicken, or maybe a boneless beef rib known as scaramella. Not that there was any talk of food when we first met in the international bookshop near Termini station. Browsing side by side, she asked me what I thought of Iris Murdoch, looked appalled when I said I hadn’t read her, then walked over to the desk and ordered me a copy of The Sea, The Sea. Two weeks later she sent me a message in capital letters – “LIBRO ARRIVES, BOOKSHOP WED 10” – and, after picking it up, we went for coffee, the first of many. She also seemed appalled when I told her I wrote about food. “Of all the subjects”. But then later we did talk about food – if the story involved something sinister or salacious, or a pub. Which is how we arrived at the bollito, and her ex-husband’s insistence that for it to be true bollito, the raw meat must be put into boiling water, but how she used to start from cold and he never noticed the difference. And somehow we arrived at Fergus Henderson’s way of poaching a chicken, which she was quite delighted by, and in return she gave me suggestions for the sauces for boiled meat, whether for a bollito or a single poached bird, which is one of my favourite meals. Ginia suggested two or three condiments, plus mustard, with a poached bird, the sauces, and all ideally served in a compartmentalised dish. Leftover sauces are a gift for future meals and the saviour of leftovers. Ginia now lives in Berlin near her daughter, reads avidly and never cooks.
Poached chicken with five sauces
Northern Italian bollito – that is, poached meats served with various sauces – meets a Fergus Henderson chicken recipe. I think the boiled bird, while pale, looks beautiful sitting whole, maybe with a leaf of parsley dipped in broth as an almost tattoo-like decoration, but it can, of course, also be sliced and arranged on a pretty plate. Either way, the chicken is surrounded by the various sauces, including jewel-like mustard fruits, and a bowl of boiled potatoes, too, if you like.
Prep 10 min
Cook 45 min, plus cooling time
For the poached chicken
1 large chicken (approx. 2kg), with the skin slit between leg and breast
1 carrot, peeled and halved
1 leek, trimmed and halved
1 onion, peeled and halved
2 bay leaves
34 parsley stalks
Put all the ingredients in a large pot, cover with cold water and slowly bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, take off the heat, cover and leave to cool completely.
Lift the chicken and all the vegetables out of the pot and set aside. Strain the broth, return it to the pan and bring to a gentle simmer. Return the chicken to the pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes, to heat it through thoroughly – by the end, it will be cooked through, warm and very tender. If you like, heat through some whole boiled potatoes, too.
There are now two options: one is to lift the bird on to a plate and carve it at the table, passing around a jug of the broth, and the other is to carve it first, arrange on a serving dish and serve with a little broth spooned over the top to keep it moist, with more broth in a jug alongside. Either way, serve with four or five of the sauces below in small bowls, and encourage everyone to help themselves.
The most important of the sauces –especially when this is being served as a festive meal – is mustard fruits, or mostarda di frutta, a glossy bling of a condiment from Cremona in northern Italy consisting of candied fruit poached in a mustard-flavoured syrup. You can get it from any good Italian delicatessen.
Blend 100g horseradish (either fresh or puree from a jar) with 100g soft white breadcrumbs, 50g white-wine vinegar, 40ml olive oil and a teaspoon of sugar until it forms a soft cream, then season with salt to taste.
Bagnetto rosso (red sauce)
Dice 300g tomatoes, 300g red pepper, 200g onion, a stick of celery, a small red chilli and two cloves, then put in a pan. Cook, stirring often, over a very low heat for about 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are extremely soft. Lift out and discard the cloves, then pass through a food mill or blend smooth. Add two tablespoons of red-wine vinegar, 20g sugar and salt to taste.
Salsa verde (green sauce)
Put 120g parsley, three anchovy fillets, two hard-boiled egg yolks, a peeled clove of garlic, a teaspoon of drained capers, 150ml olive oil and two teaspoons of red-wine vinegar in a blender and whiz to a thick, consistent sauce.
Blend two egg yolks, a teaspoon of dijon mustard and, adding it slowly and whisking constantly, 250ml oil – I use half-and-half vegetable oil/olive oil – until emulsified. Add salt and lemon juice to taste.
Fiona Beckett’s drink pairing Although the sauces are quite punchy, Italians would tend to drink a lightish red such as a langhe nebbiolo with a dish such as this. The Wine Society has one in its Exhibition range (£14.50, 14.5%) that would be spot on.