I had a pretty decent childhood as a farm boy in Yorkshire. Being the third child meant I was pretty much feral and free.
Starwars figures, Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone fantasy adventure books and 80’s space Lego kept me occupied at home and my Raleigh Burner gave me the freedom to visit my primary school friends by cycling across the farm tracks to the neighbouring villages. But if I had a definitive pastime as an 8 year old, it was the long days of the summer holidays spent on the haystack with my brother Sam. We built dens.
No, not just dens, we built labyrinthian networks of tunnels, we built amphitheatres, dungeons and booby traps (my favourite) of absurd complexity. Sam would carefully log the details of our every changing builds in his notebook. Without his planning and ‘bigger brother’ strength I don’t think they’d have been quite as remarkable, but I like to think I brought my creativity to the table. My greatest triumph was constructing a ’10 bale deep’ square pit in the center of an otherwise flat expanse of bales. We covered it with dried cow parsley stalks and finally a scattering of loose hay rendering it completely invisible. The next part of the plan was for me to go and find my eldest brother Matt (easy, he’d be in his room programming his ZX81 or some other nerdy activity) and wind him up to the point he’d chase after me in rage (again so easy it was almost cruel) Task accomplished I ran from the farmhouse to the Dutch barn, across the hay bale plateau, deftly skipping past the concealed ‘bear pit’ I quickly clambered up the vertical wall of bales to our impenetrable fort up in the rafters pulling up the entrance rope behind me.
Turning just in time to see an enraged big brother consumed by the haystack as if it were the great pit of Carkoon was a moment of such perfection, it could have conceivably started me off on the career path of a motivational speaker, preaching the ‘Idea-Effort-Results’ philosophy to middle management using this utopic moment as a timeless parable.
Sam, perhaps unsurprisingly went onto become an engineer (and almost certainly still has the original plans to our many dens somewhere), Matt, after we eventually helped him out of the pit, went back to his computer and became a millionaire tech geek (who’d have guessed computers were gonna catch on?) Myself, the third rebellious child, I became a chef.
Initially this was merely a lose veiled plan to avoid getting a proper job, but I soon realised I could get paid for playing with food and eating it as a full time career which appealed to my hedonistic nature, fast forward a decade or three and I’m still playing- with food, hay and my new big boy cast iron cookware toys from Staub, this simple recipe, cooked over an open fire, (but you can easily adapt to the stovetop/oven) creates a beautifully tender chicken that just falls apart, infused with the subtle grassy aromas from the hay. The smell of good hay when you pull apart a bale, the feint hint of fermentation and sweetness brings me real nostalgia- it goes without saying, use the good stuff, not dank musty bales left in the rain all winter- if you’re not keen on approaching a random farmer for a wedge of their finest hay you can get decent meadow hay at most pet shops which will work just fine.
Pot roast Chicken Cooked in Hay
28cm Cast Iron pan with tight fitting lid
Tripod grill and fire pit (optional)
1 square of baking parchment, approx. 25x 25cm
1 White onion, sliced
1 Carrot, sliced
½ Leek, sliced
½ Head celery, sliced
Bulb garlic, cloves removed and crushed
Handful of oregano or other aromatic herbs
1 tbsp Peppercorns
1 Bay leaf
1 Free range chicken, approx. 2.2kg, (make sure it comfortably fits your pan), legs trussed
2 litres hot chicken stock
1 decent handful of good quality hay
Pat dry the surface of the chicken with kitchen towel to dry the skin if needed, season well with salt and pepper
Heat the cast iron pan over a high heat and add a glug of veg oil, place the chicken breast side down to colour the skin, using tongs carefully turn the chicken occasionally until coloured, remove from the pan and set aside on the baking parchment.
Immediately add the carrots and leeks, celery and onion and fry until softened, add the garlic and peppercorns and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Remove the pan from the fire and place the hay in a nest in center. Carefully lift the chicken, on the parchment and place it on top of the hay, snuggled nicely in the center.
(the baking parchment helps to stop hay attaching itself to the chicken and makes it easier to lift out later)
Pour over the hot chicken stock, enough to 3/4 cover the chicken, add more if needed and then add the bay and oregano, place the lid on the cast iron pan and return to the firepit, bring the pan to a simmer. Keep just below a simmer taking care to control the heat on the fire pit for 2 hours (use a cooking thermometer to make sure the temperature doesn’t drop below 90C)
Remove the pan from the grill and allow to cool slightly before using some sturdy utensils to carefully transfer the chicken to a carving plate or board, to be served with, well whatever you want- but great just pulled apart and devoured outside maybe with a herby mayo and and some fresh thick cut chips.
Hope you like it!
Tom, July 18