The sawdust on the floor, the not-unpleasant smell of fat, the hooks and flesh against the white tiles: I remember these things about Harbours Butchers on Southdown Road, Harpenden. Also, the glass booth across from the counter where Mrs Harbour sat and took money and dispensed receipts, a scene recreated back home when I forced my younger brother and sister to be customers. Maybe more than any other shop, I recall the chatter at Harbours, how talk and advice were passed back and forth across the counter like the parcels of lamb chops and bacon. There was even more chatter 180 and 250 miles farther north, in Oldham and Stokesley, at the butchers frequented by my granny and grandma respectively. It was with them I learned what a good combination small talk, health updates and the price of four ounces of liver makes, and that, if you do eat meat, how rewarding a relationship with a good butcher can be.
Both Alice and Phyllis, also my aunty May, who loved a cow heel, would have liked Testaccio market. It has five butchers’ stalls, all of which have a direct (or indirect) line back to the slaughterhouse, which may have closed in the 1970s, repurposed for other functions, but is still an imposing presence just metres from the new market. If I could, I would take all three of them to Cesare, who runs one stall with his wife, Delia, the smallest of the five, but maybe the most enmeshed with the quarter since 1918. He may have left his memorabilia behind when the market moved a few years ago, but I still know Cesare is a devoted Beatles fan. And this knowledge is nice; in my head, it hangs around our every interaction, as he carefully squashes two sausages into the twice-minced beef for meatballs, cuts a fold of tripe or bones a whole chicken.
I first made this dish for Christmas 10 years ago, when I was given half a boned turkey and the advice to stuff it, which I did hastily, and then managed to overcook it. Cooking disappointments, I find, are like fairground games, and have two results: banishment (never doing/making that again) or determination (until I get it right, which I think I have). Ask a butcher or capable person to bone the chicken.
The recipe can be adapted for breasts, skin on and split, stuffed and tied. Or the stuffing can simply be used with a whole chicken, either stuffed inside or baked and served on the side. I recommend the boned version, though: it is celebratory and rewarding, everything bundled neatly, the juices and generous chestnut-prune-apple stuffing keeping everything tender, slicing neatly.
1 chicken approx 1.7kg, boned
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 knob of butter, plus extra for smearing
2 tbsp olive oil
100g peeled cooked chestnuts, chopped
50g soft prunes, chopped
50g apple, peeled and diced
1 sprig fresh thyme, minced
3 sage leaves, minced
A pinch of dried oregano
Salt and black pepper
100ml white wine
Lay out the chicken breast side down and season. Get some string ready and heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4.
Fry the onion in the butter and olive oil until it turns soft and translucent. Add the chestnuts, prunes, apples, herbs, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper, and cook for a few minutes more. Take off the heat and leave to cool for a couple of minutes.
Arrange the stuffing in a heap down the centre of the open chicken, then bring the sides and legs up and in to form a parcel (the skin can be helpful here). Using either a single piece of string or several lengths, tie the chicken into a bundle.
Rub the skin all over with olive oil, season and put the chicken breast side up in roasting tray or dish that’s just a bit larger than the bird itself. Roast for an hour, pouring the wine into the bottom of the dish after 30 minutes.
Test by inserting a skewer into the middle of the meat: if the juices run clear, it’s ready; if not, return to the oven for five minutes and test again. Cover loosely with foil, rest for 15 minutes, then carve into thick slices and serve with a spoonful of the cooking juices.