It's much the same with chicken. A spry old boiled hen is 10 times more tasty than its younger counterpart. Tough as old boots, of course, but give it several hours of gentle simmering and the fork will sink in with ease. The middle-aged bird - quite how old that is depends on breed and raising method - has just enough flavour and firmness to make interesting eating, even if it is less emphatic.
Go one step down to the wee spring chicken, or poussin, and flavour all but disappears. Poussins are bland - or 'delicately flavoured', if you want to be polite. But there is no getting round the fact that they score well on other counts. The main one, as you might expect, is tenderness: they have barely had time to flex their muscles, so their meat, pale as ivory, is soft and moist.
They are small enough to cook quickly, but big enough to furnish a more than generous main course for one, or a light bite for two. They look glamorous enough to grace a smart dinner plate, and they do away with the need for carving, a plus for those of us less than proficient in this skill.
Technically, I believe, there is a slight difference between a poussin and a spring chicken, though the terms are used interchangeably. A poussin should be four weeks old and weigh about 1lb to 1 1/2 lb; a spring chicken can be a smidgen older and heftier. But when it comes to cooking, they are much of a muchness.
Poussins should be handled much as fully grown chickens, particularly in terms of kitchen hygiene: wash all knives and surfaces that the raw bird comes into contact with; store in the fridge in such a way that no blood or juices can drip on to other foods and contaminate them; and make sure that they are cooked right through to the bone.
They are excellent roasted, and easier than chicken to fry or grill evenly. Naturally, you can casserole them, but it is a bit pointless as they usually emerge in a somewhat bedraggled state.
There are two ways of cooking of poussins. If you think their flavour is 'delicate', you will want to tread lightly, not adding any ingredient that could overwhelm it. This excludes rather a lot of options, but all those classic chicken with cream sauce recipes, flavoured mutedly with mushroom, tarragon or mustard, are easily adapted.
In the same restrained vein, you could do worse than to roast them with a few sweet herbs slipped under the skin (snug against the flesh), rubbed with lemon juice, seasoned well and buttered copiously.
But if you consider poussins to be bland, you have more room for creativity. With a jot of imagination, their very blandness becomes a virtue: the poultry equivalent of a blank sheet of paper on which you can write as large as you like in whatever colours and script take your fancy.
Spatchcocked poussins, opened out flat, are relatively easy to grill through to the bone, but take it gently so that the outside does not burn while the inside is still raw and bloody. The highly spiced tandoori marinade is a marvellous foil for tender, mild poussins.
Ingredients: 2 poussins
6tbs strained yoghurt
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 in piece of ginger, roughly chopped
1tsp each coriander seeds and cumin seeds
1/2 tbs paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp each ground black pepper and cayenne pepper,
pinch ground cinnamon
generous tbs lemon juice
2tbs sunflower oil
Preparation: Spatchcock the poussins. Turn them flat side up and, with a pair of poultry shears or a strong sharp knife, cut through each bird, along the backbone, splitting the rib cage. Open out flat, pressing down with the heel of your hand. Remove the skins. Cut two deep slashes across the breasts. Spear the birds flat by pushing two skewers diagonally through each to form a cross, holding the thighs and wings firmly splayed.
Dry-fry the coriander and cumin seeds in a small pan, over a high heat, until they give off a strong fragrance. Cool and grind to a powder. In a processer, whizz the garlic, onion and ginger until smooth. Mix with the yoghurt, all the ground spices, lemon juice, oil and salt. Smear thickly over the poussin, rubbing it down into the slashes and all the nooks and crannies. Cover and leave to marinate for at least eight hours, or a full 24 hours if possible.
Grill the poussin under a fairly hot grill, for about 10-15 minutes on each side, until cooked through.
Southern fried poussin with milk gravy
From the deep South of the United States, though it is chicken not poussins that are given this treatment there. It adapts particularly well, however, to give deliciously crisp-coated halves of poussin, with a mild sauce. You can further adapt the recipe to give a more Mediterranean flavour by replacing half or all the fat with olive oil, and slipping some garlic into the pan towards the end of the cooking time. In that case, skip the milk gravy and replace with a tomatoey salsa or sauce.
Ingredients: 2 poussins, cut in half
lard or sunflower or vegetable oil for frying
1/2 pint full cream milk
salt, pepper and cayenne pepper
Preparation: Season some flour generously with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper, and toss the chicken pieces in it until evenly coated.
Heat enough lard or oil in a heavy-bottomed deep pan to give a depth of about 1/4 in, until good and hot. Add the poussin pieces, skin side down (if they won't all fit in comfortably, cook in two batches). When browned, reduce heat, turn and cook until the other side is browned. Turn again, and continue until cooked through (about 20 minutes in all). Drain on absorbent paper, then keep warm in the oven while you make the gravy.
Pour off all except about two tablespoons of fat. Sprinkle over the flour and mix well, scraping up the nice brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Gradually stir in the milk, bring to the boil and stir for a few minutes until the gravy has thickened, and the taste of raw flour has disappeared. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Roast glazed poussin
A sweet spiced glaze and simple couscous stuffing dress up poussins swiftly and effectively. Far East meets Middle East.
Ingredients: 2 poussins
For the glaze:
2 cardamom pods
1/4 tsp each ground ginger, cinnamon and black pepper
1tbs clear honey
1tbs soy sauce
1tbs dry sherry
For the stuffing:
2oz (55g) couscous
1/2 oz (15g) currants
1/2 oz (15g) pinenuts, toasted
finely grated zest 1/2 lemon
1tbs chopped parsley
1/2 oz (15g) butter, softened
salt and pepper
Preparation: To make the glaze, slit open the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Crush with a pestle or the end of a rolling pin. Place, with all remaining glaze ingredients, in a small pan and heat gently, without boiling, stirring constantly, until evenly mixed. Cool for a few seconds, then brush over the poussins. Leave for 15-20 minutes, then repeat.
To make the stuffing, cover the couscous with boiling water, leave for 10 minutes, then drain well and squeeze dry. Rub in the butter with your fingers, coating the grains. Mix with the remaining stuffing ingredients, and fill the poussins. Sit in an oiled oven-proof dish, and spoon 3-4 tablespoons of water around them.
Roast at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for about 45-50 minutes, basting once or twice with their own juices, until cooked through.