It caught my eye on the end of Smith & Tissington’s chicken and fish stall on Sheffield’s Moor Market, a big, busty Barbara Windsor of a bird clearly marked ‘Capon.’ I hadn’t seen one in years.
“So what is a capon?” asked my wife. “It’s a chicken but a he not a she; a cockerel with its nadgers cut off,” I said and she shuddered. “I thought they were illegal,” I added.
When I was younger my family once had capons for Christmas when we couldn’t afford a turkey. A capon was valued for its moist, tasty flesh, a bit like chicken used to be compared with your average fowl now.
We were planning the capon for May Bank Holiday dinner with the family and the bird weighed in at 2.7 kilos for a very reasonable £6.50.”Just don’t tell them what it is when they eat it,” said my wife so of course I did. And it didn’t stop anyone eating it or remarking that this was the moistest, juiciest, tastiest bird we had had for a long time.
But I was still puzzled. Looking online, I read that capons were still illegal. In fact, they have been for almost 40 years. So how come they were on the market? I didn’t have time to quiz boss Paul Tissington when I bought it but he’d told me “Come back and let me know how you found it.” So I did. And I asked him. Paul came clean about the capon, something he’s happy to explain.
It wasn’t a capon. Not in the technical sense.
That’s as in not a bona fide capon but a big bird he calls a capon to attract those people – “you’ll forgive me, of a certain age” – who know what a capon is. Or was.
A capon was a transgendered fowl long before it became fashionable in humans. With its bits cut off it didn’t grow a comb, grew fat – as it wasn’t strutting around the farmyard defending its harem – and nurtured its feminine side by going broody.
It has long been popular. Shakespeare mentions it five times. Jacques, in As You Like It, refers to it in his Seven Ages of Man speech:
“And then the Justice
In fair round belly with good capon lined”
Turning a cock into a capon involves cutting open the bird without anaesthetic and was eventually outlawed, at least in the EU. Chemical castration is possible but it involves pumping them full of oestrogen. They are still available elsewhere in the world, if you can find them.
The ban left poultry breeders trying to fill the gap and they produced a slower growing, bigger hen, which are what Paul and his wife Debra sell. It’s their decision to call it a capon. Around Christmas it becomes a roaster. They sell perhaps a dozen a week, more at Easter, Bank Holidays and, of course, Christmas.
So were we kidding ourselves, thinking it was something else? After 40 years I cannot remember the specifics of a taste but this was the best chicken we’ve had for ages. And certainly better than a turkey.
Paul, whose father Roy co-founded the business on the old Castle Market in 1960 and would have sold capons then, is unrepentant at so labelling the birds. “It got you interested. Anywhere else it would have cost you £8 or £9. That to me is what market shopping is all about.”
Incidentally, the bird provided four roast dinners, two more with bubble and squeak, several rounds of sandwiches, dripping for my toast for at least three breakfasts while the rest was added to an excellent stock made from the carcass. The fat skimmed off the top of the stock fried the bubble. The stock made two bowls of chicken and mushroom soup and two plates of risotto, a total of ten main meals. Not bad for £6.50.
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