Technically a capon is a hand-castrated cock, and while exotic and expensive, your butcher will be able to track one down in the wholesale market. Capon was greatly favoured in the Middle Ages, great big chickens that they were, and still are, weighing anything from
A suitably Renaissance treatment is to serve it as the Italians would in Mantua. The combination of succulent chicken with the tangy marinade is both unusual and delicious. Where most meat dishes are marinated before cooking, this is one instance where the bird is first poached and then marinated, the marinade being served as a sauce.
You can cook an ordinary chicken in the same way. A
Poach the bird well ahead, ideally 2 days before you want to serve: put the capon in a large pan and cover it with cold water or chicken stock. Add the celery stalks and leaves if available, with the onion studded with the cloves and the salt. Bring to the boil, skim, lower the heat and simmer for 1½ hours. Leave to cool in the broth.
Put the pine nuts in a dry pan and toast lightly over a low heat, stirring, for 2–3 minutes. Set aside.
Heat the red wine vinegar in a pan to a simmer. Add the bay leaves, orange and lemon zest, caster sugar, salt and pepper, and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste for sweetness: if too sour, add a little more sugar. Add the sultanas and toasted pine nuts and set aside.
Take the bird out of the poaching water, pull off and discard any fat and skin. Remove the flesh from the bones and shred with your fingers. Put in a serving bowl and pour over the warm dressing, mixing thoroughly. Leave to macerate at room temperature for 2–3 hours, then refrigerate overnight.
Next day, remove the bowl from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Just before bringing it to the table, dress with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve with sliced ripe plum tomatoes and torn basil leaves.
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.