An ancient recipe for chicken and damsons

Many things have changed in human history, but our passion for food most certainly hasn’t. So let’s take a (small) break from our usual scientific forays, and delve into a very old recipe that survived the taste of time.

The recipe comes from a book called “The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen”, published in two editions, in 1594 and 1588, by Thomas Dawson. Dawson was an author of popular cookery and housekeeping books in the late 16th century, and his books were very popular at the time — and are still interesting to this day.

The recipe we’ll be having a look at here is essentially a damson chicken pie. Although the recipe is really old (something visible in how “u” and “v” are used interchangeably), but it does a surprisingly good job at listing quite precise measurements and instructions on how to bake the pie. However, these instructions (and particularly the cooking times) should be treated cautiously as they must be understood in the context of the time, where food was cooked with the ingredients and technology available to people — the latter of which, in particular, is wildly different today.

For this recipe you will need:


  • Filling:
    approx. 4 chicken breasts ( preferably cut into small bite-size pieces and pre-cooked )
    20 damsons ( peeled and halved – stones removed )
    Butter – the size of a walnut
    One teaspoon cloves
    One teaspoon mace
    Two teaspoon cinnamon
    One teaspoon sugar
    Handful of currants or raisins
  •  Pastry:
    Flour to make the dough
    Circa 12 egg yolks
    Little saffron for colouring

Original instructions (note the old style of writing — modern instructions below)

“Take your chickens, drawe them and wash them, then breake their bones and lay them in a platter, then take foure handfuls of fine flower and lay it on a faire boord, put thereto twelve yolks of Egs, a dish of butter, and a little Saffron : mingle them together, and make your paste therewith. Then make sixe coffins, and put in euery coffin a lumpe of butter of the bignesse of a walnut : then season your sixe coffins with one spoonful of Cloues and Mace, two spoonfuls of Synamon, and one of Sugar, and a spoonful of Salt. The put your Chickens into your pies : then take damisons and pare away the outward peele of them, and then twentie in euery of your pies, round about your chicken, then put into euerie of your coffins, a hand full of Corrans. Then close them vp, and put them into the Ouen, then let them be there three quarters of an hour.”

Modern Instructions

  • Take the flour, butter, yolks and saffron, and prepare the pastry by mixing everything together;
  • Wash, cut and pre-cook chicken;
  • Put a bit of butter on your baking dish;
  • Roll out and put the pastry in your baking dish;
  • Add the chicken, damsons, spices, butter and raisins;
  • Close up and bake.

Saffron isn’t absolutely necessary, though it gives an interesting color and a very subtle aroma. Damsons are a relative of plums, and they can be substituted for plums. However, damsons are a bit more sour and astringent, so if you do add plums, you can pinch in a bit of lemon juice to compensate for that — though the taste won’t be exactly the same.

Bonus! For vegetarians

If you would like to try this recipe but are a vegetarian, fret not! This is still a recipe you can enjoy by replacing chicken with something else. There are commercial products which mimic chicken (Quorn is a good example, though might not be available in all parts of the world). For a simple substitution, we recommend replacing the chicken with sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

For other recipes from the same book, you can check out this website. Do let us know how things worked out in the comments, we’d love to see how it panned out!

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