How to make the perfect cock-a-leekie soup

St Andrew’s Day, which falls at the end of this month, is celebrated as the feast day of Scotland’s patron saint and a last hurrah before we disappear under an avalanche of mince pies and mulled wine. And if there’s one thing the Scots are good at, apart from politics, economics, terriers and whisky, it’s an honest broth. According to the Victorian journalist and author Christian Isobel Johnstone, who published her The Cook and Housewife’s Manual under the pseudonym Margaret Dods: “The French take the lead of all European people in soups and broths … the Scotch rank second, the Welsh next, and … the English, as a nation, are at the very bottom of the scale.” As an Edinburgh native, she may have been biased, but when one considers the likes of cullen skink, Scotch broth and our subject here, cock-a-leekie, it’s hard not to concede the point.

The last, occasionally known as cockie-leekie, is often dated to the end of the 16th century, when the Lincolnshire-born traveller Fynes Moryson records having been served “pullet with some prunes in the broth” at a knight’s house in Scotland, although, given the widespread medieval tradition of meat and fruit pottages, it seems likely that similar dishes were once found throughout northern Europe – even (horror!) south of the border. Happily for us, however, this particular version remained popular in Scotland, and feels a pleasingly simple and wholesome celebratory dish to prepare the stomach for the month to come.

Jane Grigson’s cock-a-leekie soup
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Jane Grigson’s cock-a-leekie soup. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The chicken

As ever, many recipes call for what the redoubtable Maw Broon calls “an auld boiling fowl” (thanks to Twitter friend of the column Jon Dryden Taylor for supplying the recipe), which is, as we have seen previously, an appropriately tough thing to get hold of in 21st-century Britain. Catherine Brown reckons that “attempting a modern cock-a-leekie with an immature battery chicken is akin to attempting cassoulet without confit”, and, in the absence of decent chicken recommends using “a more flavourful pheasant or other game bird – cock or hen – which has roamed freely”. Having tried her recipe, I can confirm that pheasant makes a delicious soup, even when enjoyed from a bowl in a warm kitchen, rather than from a Thermos in the middle of a damp autumnal copse, but one with a distinct gamey character. Feel free to use pheasant here, if that’s what you have, but chicken, to some extent the older the better, remains the classic choice.

Clearly, I wouldn’t dream of using anything other than a free-range, if presumably still hopelessly immature, chicken for any of the recipes I test, but the difference between the others lies largely in the cut and the preparation. Jane Grigson and Tom Kitchin call for whole birds, and Xanthe Clay and Graeme Taylor opt for chicken legs or drumsticks, with the latter roasting them before use.

At this point, the prospective cock-a-leekie cook is faced with a choice: one dish or two? Using a whole bird produces so much excess meat that there is enough left over for another meal entirely – coronation chicken or curry or pie, perhaps, as takes your fancy. As I am only dealing with the soup, however, I’m going to go for legs alone, which should at least have done a bit of work on a free-range bird, and are considerably cheaper by weight than a whole chicken, which might even mean you can afford to buy better.

Graeme Taylor’s cock-a-leekie soup
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Graeme Taylor’s cock-a-leekie soup. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Although roasting the meat first, as Taylor and Brown suggest, gives the broth the deep savouriness of a Sunday roast, if you have time to simmer the raw joints for several hours, you’ll reap a cleaner, clearer broth that testers claim tastes more intensely of chicken, and softer, juicier meat. (The time-pressed, however, should follow Taylor’s lead to have cock-a-leekie on the table in under two hours.)

Many older recipes, including Johnstone’s and that in F Marian McNeill’s 1929 work The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore with Old-time Recipes, also include beef of some sort, Johnstone being of the belief that, “if soup be the foundation of a good dinner, it is equally true that beef is the only foundation of a good soup.” Grigson’s version, from the Observer Guide to British Cookery, also collected in the Best of Jane Grigson, makes a stock from beef shin before adding the bird, which yields a rich, sticky and very beefy base – the chicken doesn’t stand a chance. Gorgeous, of course, but not much cock for your leekie.

Brown adds a grilled sausage to the mix. A nut-brown sausage, of course, is rarely an unwelcome thing to come across at the bottom of the bowl, but unless you are making cock-a-leekie from a carcass that has been picked entirely clean, and feel in desperate need of extra protein, it does tend to overpower the delicate flavour of the broth.

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