What happens when you get an open kiln, a bit of clay and a chicken together? ‘Gypsy’ chicken, of course. At least this is what Paula Wolfert calls a clay wrapped chicken in her book, Clay Pot Cooking.
These exact conditions converged a little while ago when a group of pottery researchers (professionals and Ph.D. students from around the world) were here on a short specialist course instructed by our team of ceramic scientists. To celebrate their last evening, they fired a few of their test ceramic pieces in an open kiln and partook of a farewell BBQ. I got roped in by one of the researchers who was keen to do a bit of experimental archaeology by baking a chicken wrapped in clay (definitely not part the main menu, but something a little extra).
Below is my lovely Australian co-conspirator rolling out a slab of non-toxic clay. That’s me gesturing on the left (and keeping my hands clean!).
The whole chicken was rubbed with olive oil and stuffed with a cut lemon, sprigs of rosemary and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt. After carefully wrapping it in baking parchment (so the chicken does not come into direct contact with the clay), the bird is wrapped in clay producing a very lumpy packet, then carefully taken over to the open kiln.
Contrary to Paula Wolfert’s advice, the clay packet was placed in an an open fire which had been going for some time. Her advice is to first put the clay packet in a cold oven before turning it on to reduce the cracking of the clay. Naturally, ours cracked! It was placed on the edge of the fire as temperatures in the open kiln reached far above the recommended oven baking temperature.
After about 3 hours, it emerged, with one section of burnt chicken where the clay had cracked. Surprisingly, the baking parchment remained mostly intact under its clay overcoat. The ‘official’ photograph below was taken complete with some of the kiln’s ash – mercifully out of focus as it was such a horrendous looking blackened lump of clay. Our hearts sunk after seeing it, thinking that the experiment was a complete failure.
Yet, despite its hideous appearance, once the clay surface was broken and removed, the chicken meat was beautifully moist and perfectly cooked (well, except for one burnt end of a drumstick).
We had fun, and learned a few things as well. Prior to the experiment we did a bit of research on unfired clay cooking pots. It seems to have been a phenomenon of itinerant societies (such as hunter-gatherers) although more in the past than present day. It makes sense that people on the move would fashion clay cooking vessels on the spot when they are needed rather than carting heavy, bulky and breakable pots from place to place. So, this is probably the rational behind the term ‘Gypsy’ in Wolfert’s book to describe slow-cooked clay wrapped chicken.
Might try it again, but this time following Wolfert’s instructions in an oven. Or, perhaps stick to my domed clay pot (currently in the UK, but I hope to get another one for the kitchen here in Greece). Or, we might come up with more crazy ceramic experiments…