Feel like chicken tonight? Make sure it's the finest quality free range, says Mark Hix, and you will taste the difference immediately

OUR CHICKENS have got themselves a bad name. It's not anything the chickens themselves have done. It's what we've done to the poor fowl. Mass-produced as cheap protein, many of them look anaemic and taste of nothing. No wonder the solution seems to be to smother them in Chinese or Indian sauces. How they're reared doesn't bear thinking about.

Our chickens have got themselves a bad name. It's not anything the chickens themselves have done. It's what we've done to the poor fowl. Mass-produced as cheap protein, many of them look anaemic and taste of nothing. No wonder the solution seems to be to smother them in Chinese or Indian sauces. How they're reared doesn't bear thinking about.

French poultry farming puts most of ours to shame. They leave the birds to do their own thing, take pride in the quality of the maize they feed them, and make sure they look attractive to customers. They don't sell them trapped in clingfilm, but wrapped in waxed paper so the skin can breathe.

In France there are established poultry labels that are universally recognised, like wine appellations. Best known is Poulet de Bresse. The birds are the blue-legged Gauloise breed, and at an early age are given a metal leg ring which stays on as proof of their pedigree when you buy them. They're priced in keeping with their aristocratic status; expect to pay about £15 a bird, and in this country their habitat seems to be places like Harrods or Harvey Nichols in London.

Other breeds can be found in good supermarkets and butchers outside posh neighbourhoods like Knightsbridge, however. The poulet noir is a free-range bird with black feathered legs and a great flavour even though it looks a bit on the skinny side. A good-looking bird should have healthy-coloured skin, with long healthy breasts from exercising out in the yard with its mates. I think the legs of a well-reared bird have the best flavour, nearer that of a guinea fowl, though they can be a little less tender than the breast.

There are now signs that British chicken producers are changing their ways and coming up with chickens that live well and taste good. Look out for native ones bred and fed for flavour. We have recently started buying Goosnargh – the locals pronounce it Goozna – chickens and ducks from Lancashire. Reg Johnson, and other poultry farmers elsewhere, are now producing real, maize-fed poultry reared for flavour.

Some – though not Reg's – even come as "Label Anglais", slightly pretentiously modelled on the famous French Label Rouge, which indicates that they're pasture-reared. It's a sign that they're on a par with some of the best birds from across the Channel. But why can't they label them in English? Is it because we're so suspicious of most British chicken? If so, it's time poultry farming got a better name for itself, and there were more fowl as fair as Goosnargh.

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