Preparation time over 2 hours
Cooking time 1 to 2 hours
You can buy a bag of hay from any pet shop; it is very inexpensive. Make sure that you buy hay and not straw; it is sometimes sold as meadowsweet hay. A probe will remove any uncertainty about whether or not this chicken is cooked inside.
For the salt crust pastry
50g/2oz fresh thyme, finely chopped
50g/2oz fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1.6kg/3½lb strong plain flour, plus a little extra
700g/1lb 7oz salt
15 egg whites
For the chicken
hay, about a carrier bag full
1 chicken, weighing about 1.5kg/3lb 5oz
freshly ground black pepper
bunch of fresh thyme
butter, to serve
1. First make the pastry. With the exception of the water, mix all the ingredients together. Add enough water at the end to bring the dough together. You do not want this to be too wet, or, on the other hand, too dry, or it will be too crumbly and will fall apart.
2. Now, on to the kneading. You can use a mixer with a dough hook, or do this by hand. This is a very dense dough which will require kneading for at least 10 minutes - which is why you might want to use a machine. When it's thoroughly kneaded, wrap it tightly in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Soak the hay for at least a couple of hours in cold water, preferably overnight, and squeeze dry.
3. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7.
4. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about ½cm and place a mound of damp hay in the middle. The pastry should be 20-25cm/8-10 inches bigger all round than the chicken and hay inside.
5. Pierce the lemon several times with a fork. Season the chicken inside and out with pepper and stuff the lemon and the thyme into the cavity. Place it upside down on the hay. Cover it with more hay and wrap the dough around the bird so that it comes together and completely seals it in. Make sure there are no holes in the pastry; you do not want to let any of the steam out.
6. Place the chicken wrapped in the hay and pastry in a large, shallow ovenproof casserole. Cook the chicken in the oven for about 40 minutes. By this time, the pastry should have become hard and lightly brown.
7. Remove from the oven and leave untouched for 35 minutes. Now take the chicken to the table and open the parcel, but take care, as the interior may still contain a little steam.
8. Carve the chicken. If the legs are a little undercooked (the juices should run clear when the chicken is cooked), finish them off under the grill or return them to the oven, skin-side down, for a few minutes. Rub the pieces with butter and serve. (Discard the cooked pastry and the hay.)