Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral”. Frank Lloyd Wright

Readers of the Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine voted Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994) the ‘The most useful cookbook of all time’.

I have no argument with that judgement. I have read and admired its author, Simon Hopkinson, for many years. He has been at the heart of many of the country’s finest restaurants, eventually leaving the catering world in 1995 after curating the outstanding menu at Terence Conran’s Bibendum restaurant from the late 80’s onwards.

Since that time he has continued to cook in his own domestic kitchen but has turned to a life of food writing, exhibiting a precise and exquisite taste coupled with a natural warmth and an innate gift for contextualization. He is possessed of a crystal clear intellect, a delightfully witty prose style, but most importantly, exerts a passion for timeless recipes and a generous desire to share them. His evocative books are as much a pleasure to read, as his recipes are to cook and eat. A man of a different stripe – a classically trained chef, with his heart set on home cooking.

The following seminal recipe has formed the basis of our chicken, guinea fowl and even turkey roasts for many years. I have never found it bettered

Roast Chicken

110g good butter
1.8 kg free-range chicken
Salt and pepper
1 lemon
Several sprigs of thyme or tarragon, or a mixture of the two
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

Preheat the oven the 450°F / 230°C / Gas mark 8. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird. Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Season liberally with the salt and pepper and squeeze over the juice of the lemon. Put the herbs and garlic inside the cavity, together with the squeezed out lemon halves – this will add a fragrant lemony flavour to the finished dish.

Roast the chicken in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Baste, then turn the oven temperature down to 375°F / 190°C / Gas mark 5 and roast for a further 30-45 minutes with further occasional basting. The bird should be golden brown all over with a crisp skin and have buttery, lemony juices of a nut-brown colour in the bottom of the tin.

Turn off the oven, leaving the door ajar, and leave the chicken to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving. This enables the flesh to relax gently, retaining the juices in the meat and ensuring easy, trouble-free carving and a moist bird.

Carve the bird to suit yourself; I like to do it in the roasting tin. I see no point in making a gravy in that old-fashioned English way with the roasting fat, flour and vegetable cooking water. With this roasting method, what you end up with in the tin is an amalgamation of butter, lemon juice and chicken juices. That’s all. It is a perfect homogenisation of fat and liquids. All it needs is a light whisk or a stir, and you have the most wonderful ‘gravy’ imaginable. If you wish to add extra flavour, you can scoop the garlic and herbs out of the cavity, stir them into the gravy and heat through, strain before serving.

Another idea, popular with the Italians, is sometimes known as ‘wet-roasting’. Pour some white wine or a little chicken stock, or both, or even just water around the bottom of the tin at the beginning of the cooking. This will produce more of a sauce and can be enriched further to produce altogether different results. For example, you can add chopped tomatoes, diced bacon, cream, endless different herbs, mushrooms, spring vegetables, spices – particularly saffron and ginger – or anything else that you fancy.

For me, the simple roast bird is the best, but it is useful to know how much further you can go when roasting a chicken.

Wine thoughts

Under the guise of the Chenin grape there are a slew of passionless, apologetically vapid whites, with which you would barely dress wounds. It has bounced in and out of fashion as frequently as Wiener Schnitzel or Rice Pudding. But at the edge of the Anjou region in the western Loire, lies the appellation of Savennières. Here we were fortunate to be able to sit with Florent Baumard, of Domaine des Baumard, to taste some of his deliciously persistent whites, made from Chenin Blanc and labeled Clos de Papillon. Very few Chenins could hold a candle to these crystalline, luscious wines, with their heady bouquet of spring flowers delineated by a crisp palate of lime zest and dried fruit. Without doubt, a suitable foil for Simon’s roast chicken with its accompanying pool of rich déglace juices.