Remembered But Not Witnessed… Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazelnuts And Apple Brandy

If I was to choose a flower that per­fectly evokes the past, I would pick the mocked and reviled dah­lia. It’s so ridicu­lously, frothily retro and has been out of fash­ion for so long. And yet dog­gedly and resi­li­ently it’s hung on in the shad­ows, wait­ing for its chance to creep back onto the stage. This year I’ve grown dah­lias for the first time — if truth be told, they pretty much grew them­selves, actu­ally. And look how beau­ti­ful they are — like mini­ature wed­ding hats from the 1950s.

In Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-nominated novel The Sense of an End­ing, we’re warned that ‘what you end up remem­ber­ing isn’t always the same as what you have wit­nessed.’ I thought of that phrase when buy­ing a birth­day card for a friend, to go with the dah­lias. I found one in an antiques shop in Oxford; clipped to its front is an old black and white pho­to­graph that must have been taken eighty years ago. I’d like to think the pic­ture was taken on the couple’s hon­ey­moon, but since I neither remem­ber not wit­nessed, it’s impossible to be sure. And yet there they are, trapped on a card, with a frag­ment of rib­bon, some shreds of ini­tialled tape and a large black but­ton; a whole new present tense cre­ated out of their past. I hope they’d be pleased.

I thought again of the past in cre­at­ing this recipe. It’s a re-imagining of the dish I always chose as a child from the menu of a small candle-lit bis­tro on the south coast of Eng­land. I have no idea how they made it, but I thought it was the height of soph­ist­ic­a­tion. This is what I remem­ber, even if it’s not what I wit­nessed. But, like the card, I’ve made a new present tense out of the past.

Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazel­nuts and Apple Brandy

Serves 4

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin on
  • 1 table­spoon olive oil
  • 2 ripe, firm pears such as Comice, cored, peeled, quartered and cut into slices 1–2 mm thick
  • 1 knob butter
  • 1/4 cup Cal­va­dos — brandy will do if you can’t find Calvados
  • 100 g blanched hazel­nuts, toasted until light brown in a dry fry­ing pan and then crushed
  • 200 g creme fraiche
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Heat the olive oil in a fry­ing pan until very hot and start­ing to smoke. Place the chicken breasts, skin-side down in the pan and leave for 4 minutes without mov­ing them at all — don’t be temp­ted to turn them over. Remove the chicken to an oven-proof dish and, still skin-side down, place in the pre­heated oven for 9 to 10 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the oven and rest the chicken, before sli­cing each piece into 4. Reserve the unwashed fry­ing pan for the sauce.

Return the unwashed fry­ing pan to the heat and once hot again, add the brandy. Stir to deglaze the pan and to let the alco­hol evap­or­ate. After three minutes, add the knob of but­ter and once it has melted, add the sliced pears. Bubble in the pan for 5 minutes until very slightly brown at the edges. Add the crushed hazel­nuts and stir gently for a fur­ther 3 minutes. Add the creme fraiche, stir in, and then add the white wine, plus plenty of salt and black pep­per. Cook for a fur­ther 5 minutes or until the pears are soft. Check the season­ing and then spoon the sauce around the chicken. Serve with mashed pota­toes and cavolo nero cabbage.

I served the chicken-I-remember-but-may-not-have-witnessed, on the clock plates given to me thirty years ago by a great friend called Brian. He died a long time ago, but I love using his plates — the per­fect way to think of the past while watch­ing the long hand of the clock tick around the rim.