The Clever Girl or The Capon Conspiracy

In which we discover that you can’t have a mortar without a pestle especially if it’s gold, that kings make mistakes, the importance of clever queens and that even a capon can be symbolic.

A Glorious Tale

This story is glorious and I love it and I hope you did too. There is so much to share about this story and the folklore and food involved. I think we’ll start in Italy as the country has shaped this version of the story so thoroughly. Have you ever been? Its a vibrant fascinating country but you don’t have to spend much time there to realise that it hasn’t had a national identity for very long. After the decline of Rome and the Empire it became a loose collection of occasionally warring kingdoms with different dialects and culture.

Garibaldi is often held responsible for the unification (the man not the biscuit) which I vaguely remember from my A-Levels. As I know more about the biscuit than the man there are better places to to learn more about this. It officially became a country in 1871 but not in its current form. In 1918 when Trieste and Trento were annexed becoming the respective territories of Venezia Giulia and Trentino. That’s only just over a hundred years, which doesn’t give much time for bonding especially when you factor in the second world war.

Italy, a Tale of Many Kingdoms

The important thing to consider when we look at Italian story collections is that regional differences can be as great as the differences between countries. They do share some things though even when we look at such different collections as Thomas Crane, Italo Calvino and Gianbattista Basile. Crane’s language is more stilted and old-fashioned when compared to his more famous counterparts. However, they all have some commonalities. They share the abundance of food imagery, a certain disregard for authority and nobility as well as bawdiness and sensuality that you don’t get from their northern neighbours. Crane unfortunately this is hindered by his era in a way that Basile and Calvino were not. He still manages to get these across though, even through a prudish victorian lens.

Passion & Sensuality

Many visitors to Italy will have experienced the sensuality and passion that goes into their food. These emotions also shine out through the stories. I could write for hours about this so its best if we just look at today’s story and its variants. This story is known technically as tale type ATU 875 – The Clever Peasant Girl. I read three different Italian versions of this tale, two different Grimm versions and English and Scottish ones.

However, it was only in the Italian tales that I actually felt I could grow to like the Prince/King. The only variant which actually gives the daughter a name (which I promptly stole for my version) was also Italian. There was a lightness of touch which made Catherine feel like a real person and the King even approachable. There is admiration in Catherine’s cleverness, a sly nod to the silliness of her father that she obviously loves. The king is a 3D person as well, not a pencil sketch. He has many faults prescribed to his royalty. At least he possesses a sense of humour and doesn’t expect his subjects to be totally subservient.


Catherine treats the king with less than respect and this is common in Italian tales with a clever heroine. Giambattista Basile’s Viola from The Tale of Tales for exampleis even more disrespectful than Catharine. This doesn’t stop the prince still being desperate to marry her. The lighthearted, capricious King/Prince with a sense of humour that we find in the tale that originated in Bologna is not the same King in the Grimm version. `The Grimm Clever Daughter is also seen more as a scold to her father and cold to her king. You could perhaps say that either the Grimms or the storyteller that told the tale slightly disapproved of the whole situation.

I’m a Feminist, But

This maybe as close as we get to a feminist folk tale in the original rather than a modern retelling. It presents a Utopian version of society where a clever woman had power and a peasant outthought the king. This didn’t reflect the society of the time although we have a clever heroine who wins in the end. She only achieved that power because she married a king and he allowed her to exercise her wisdom. It’s also made very clear that he falls in love with her because she is beautiful as well as clever. Clever clearly wasn’t enough on its own.

Catherine answering the king back with impossible tasks to counter his impossible tasks is key here. The concept also appears in the Scottish Child Ballad known as the Elfin Knight. The oldest known version is c1600-1650 but is almost certainly much older. In Celtic mythology impossible tasks are often given to a suitor before a wedding and this may date from there.

In his notes Joseph Jacobs states that there are eighty six variants of this tale. The parallels of the riddles (how she rides to the King) in these tales are in many cases identical. However, the story around the riddles are not so closely mirrored. The Grimms felt that there was a remarkable parallel in the Saga of Aslaug and the net is definitely present. I’ll let you make up your own mind about the onion.

A Long History

The plan which provides the lovely ending can be found in the Midrash even as early as the eighth century. There is also a parallel in a town under siege in the True Wives of Weinsberg. The wives applied similar reasoning when removing their husbands when allowed to leave taking ‘the one thing they loved best’. The problem is that no-one knows if that really happened or whether it is a folktale itself.

This analysis hasn’t really touched the sides as there is so much to look at. There are many books which touch on various different elements I’ve discussed listed in the Further Reading section. If you’re like me you’ll do so much reading there won’t be time for enough analysis. I would be really interested to hear of anyone has an alternative interpretation.

A Fig, A Glass of Wine & Thou

If you like I can leave you here perhaps imaging yourself with some wonderful Italian food, a glass of great Italian wine sitting outside on a warm evening, perhaps looking down at lights of Rome spread out beneath you and a good book of Italian folktales. However if you can manage to postpone that, I can take you on a short food journey first.

As I mentioned above, Italian folk tales are absolutely full of food imagery. This one especially has food as key to the very beginnings of the story. Joseph Jacobs informs us that the story variant where the prince visits the girl’s home first is particular to Italy. That suggested to me I should choose that food for our recipe and discussion today. Especially as it appears again when the servant sent with messages eats it. So Capon it is. I wonder if many people these days even know what a capon actually is?

It used to a very popular fowl as I’ll demonstrate a little later. You might want to skip the next sentence if you are fond of animal welfare and just know its essentially a big tender chicken. Its actually a cockerel which was castrated so it could grow big and tender. The process has been illegal in the UK since the 1970s and any capons produced here are older free range cockerels that have been allowed to grow slowly. We won’t mention France, its probably for the best. Any recipes for it can substitute a large high welfare free-range chicken without any loss of flavour.

Folklore Roosters

Where you can’t substitute chicken is in the folklore, religion and mythology. Folklore across the globe is rich in cockerels or roosters which are the same thing just with a more appropriate name. It is believed that three roosters will crow signify Ragnarok, they are known as Gullinkambi, Fialar, and an unnamed soot-red rooster, referred to as “Nameless” by Odin. The devil is also known to disappear at the first crow of a cockerel in many folk tales.

They appear in the story of the betrayal of Jesus by Peter and Pope Gregory I declared them to be the symbol of christianity and ordered a rooster to be placed on every church steeple. The Talmud also suggests that ‘courtesy to one’s mate’ can be learned from cockerels. They are also a sacred animal in some cultures and play a part in shamanistic and tribal religions. They were also used for divination in Roman times as well as a sacrifice or ritual animal in several other religions.

Historic Roosters

As in religion, the cockerel plays a considerably lesser role than it used to. In medieval Europe it was a very popular fowl which could be roasted and was better than chicken because it could serve a lot more people. The meat did not go dry and when you couldn’t afford to eat a lot of meat it was important that what meat you had wasn’t ruined in the cooking. Roasting (actual roasting on a spit before the fire) was a tricky thing to get right. Medieval cooks did not have the advantage of a perfectly calibrated fan oven so any advantages that could be got from the meat itself were a bonus. It was also often boiled and then served/cooked with a sauce.

It appears in medieval cookbooks from across Europe including the Forme of Cury in 1390. However as we are looking at Italy I did a search to see if I could find an early Italian version for us. The best one I found was from Libro di cucina / Libro per cuoco a 14/15th Century cookbook from Italy as translated by Louise Smithson


V – Ambronsino (ambrosia) good and perfect and such. If you want to make ambrosino for 12 persons take 6 lean capons and 2 pounds of almonds and a pound of currants, and 1 (pound of) dates and a pound of prunes / damson plums (brognole) and 1 ? of ginger fine and one ? whole nutmeg and cloves and whole saffron, and half pound of sweet spices, and take the capon and cut into portions and make seven pieces of each, and put it to fry in lard rendered and strained in a pan.

And when it is well fried, the first thing that you must put in is the zenzevro rubbed and the nutmeg chopped well small, and cinnamon broken in good pieces and cloves whole, and almonds whole peeled, and dates whole well washed, and put in sweet spices in large amounts and let cook a little; and when it is cooked take it back (remove off the flame), when it is cooked first put in the almonds with the shell not peeled (unskinned) and grind and distemper (mix) with little vinegar and when it is cooked the dish, strain the almonds and put sauce with spices and enough saffron. This dish wants to be sharp and sweet and scarlet and sparing take it back (off the fire ? ) and put it in a bowl and powdered spices over the bowl.

an excerpt from Libro di cucina / Libro per cuoco (Italy, 14th/15th c. – Louise Smithson, trans.) The original source can be found at Louise Smithson’s website
Palace or Hovel?

This is a long way from Catherine’s peasant cottage and roast capon but cooking was a lot more complicated then if you were the king so I think we can allow it. This does sound rich so maybe it was the one that Catherine had made for him on the night she moved out. The English approach to capon was not quite so elaborate as you can see from below. It remained popular though even in the 20th century although specific dishes were not appearing with much regularity after the mid 19th century. You could still get it from a Black Country chicken factory in the mid eighties though I’m hoping it was the legal version mostly as it what my Grandad insisted on for Christmas as he would not give Turkey house room.

My Nan used to collect it and keep it in their bedroom overnight (still covered thankfully) on Christmas Eve as it was the coldest room in the house. I would like to point out that this was the 1980s not the 1880s although I appreciate that it does sound like that. They just used to use the fires downstairs as the central heating had never worked. I’m never telling the story of the man that used to bring my Nan buckets of live eels from his fishing trips for making jellied eels or you’ll definitely think I’m from another century.

Party like it’s 1499

I have chosen a recipe which has been adapted for modern cooks from a 15th Century Cookbook for today’s recipe and its not mine. I love historical cookery but as mentioned capons are family sized and sourcing would be difficult in current times. This is a recipe for Stuffed Capon or Goose and it looks really good. It can be found here . If you cook it please let me know.

Further Reading

Italian Folktales selected and retold by Italy Calvino
European Folk & Fairytales
White as Ricotta, Red as Wine: The Magic Lore of Italy by Terri Windling
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes
The Formation of the Literary Fairy Tale in Early Modern Italy 1550–1636 by Nancy L Canepa from The Fairy Tale World, edited by Andrew Teverson
Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones – Giambattista Basile ca. 1575-1632. Nancy L. Canepa 1957- Detroit : Wayne State University Press
From Court to Forest, Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale, Nancy Canepa

Featured Image – Venice 1338