Chickens supreme

When top chefs put chicken on the menu, they turn to a handful of producers whose pampered poultry is top of the pecking order. Christopher Hirst investigates.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Ever wondered why chicken served in a good restaurant tastes so much better than the chicken you cook at home? Culinary skill may have something to do with it, but the main reason is that the chicken bought by top chefs is far superior to the vast majority of poultry sold in Britain. Many of these poules de luxe are imported from France, but now a small number of British farmers are specialising in the free-range rearing of slow-growing, notably tasty strains of fowl.

Ever wondered why chicken served in a good restaurant tastes so much better than the chicken you cook at home? Culinary skill may have something to do with it, but the main reason is that the chicken bought by top chefs is far superior to the vast majority of poultry sold in Britain. Many of these poules de luxe are imported from France, but now a small number of British farmers are specialising in the free-range rearing of slow-growing, notably tasty strains of fowl.

"They're like good wine compared to plonk," says Chris Frederick, whose Farmyard Chicken Company produces an average of 1,500 birds a week. "Once you're used to it, you appreciate the difference." The top strata of the culinary world seems to agree. Around 90 per cent of Frederick's output goes to top restaurants, including The Waterside Inn and The Fat Duck, two out of the three restaurants in Britain that have been accorded three Michelin stars.

At Frederick's farm outside the commuter village of Roydon in Essex, he explained what made his chickens so special. "As soon as you go down the route of breeding for efficiency and food conversion, you begin to lose flavour. Since 1960, the average slaughter age of chickens has come down from 80 days to 37 days. That's why most chicken is as cheap as dog food. We're still growing them for 80 days or more."

Two-thirds of Frederick's birds are a narrow-breasted French-style chicken, which he markets as Label Anglais. The rest, called Special Reserve, have the broader breasts that the British market is used to. Frederick says he prefers the smaller birds. "The size of the breast is in inverse proportion to the taste. The Label Anglais is a very unrefined strain that takes a long time to put on weight. Around 99 per cent of British chickens are a greedy, fast-growing breed called Ross Cobbs. They're the obese youngsters of the chicken world, sitting around like slugs, all vitality bred out of them."

Like most chicken farmers, Frederick buys in his stock as day-old chicks. For the first four weeks, they are raised indoors. He proudly showed me his young chicks. "Look at them, they're fantastically lively, scratching in the shavings." For the rest of their lives, the birds live in large, canvas-topped range houses, though they are free to roam their Essex field during the day. The floor of the mobile range house is the grass of the field, covered in wood shavings. At night, the chickens sensibly retire and the door is closed to keep the fox out. I glanced into one of Frederick's 15 range houses. Its thousand residents appeared perfectly happy with plenty of room to move around. Unlike broiler houses, the air was fresh and sweet.

"I wouldn't mind living there," says Giorgio Locatelli, one of the culinary stars who buys from the Farmyard Chicken Company. "The chickens have virtually unlimited space and their living environment is lovely. There is always fresh straw on the ground. Because the birds don't have to walk on their own shit, they are less susceptible to infection. Ordinary chickens are filled with antibiotics." Locatelli expressed his admiration for Chris Frederick with characteristic fervour. "I've got the Michelin star, so people come in here and suck up to me, but that guy deserves more respect than I do. Cheap meat has been a disaster. When people sell 'convenience food', I ask who is it convenient for? It's convenient for them to make money. They make us feel guilty about eating an animal ... I may eat chicken just once a week, but it's going to be the best chicken I can get hold of. If my wife ever buys chicken breasts, I'll kill her." Locatelli was joking, I think.

Such luxury comes at a price. "Our birds are a hell of a lot more expensive," admits Chris Frederick. "The retail price is £5.50 a kilo; that's two-and-a-half times what the standard chicken costs." Feed is the most significant factor in pushing up the cost. Frederick's birds require 3.6 kilos of food for each kilo of body weight, while the standard chicken requires only 1.7 kilos. "We've gone back to the kind of farming my grandfather did," Frederick said. "The motto of my father's generation was 'Produce it cheaper, more efficiently'. He'd think we were mad, growing chickens the way we do. We may be accused of inefficiency, but you can't get the quality without that. We've been in the business for five years, but we're not making any money yet. We need to make a bigger margin or sell more chickens."

Luxury chickens have a big fan in The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal: "The texture is f wonderful - it also has good flavour. Its quality sings through with every mouthful. It's not really expensive. The trouble is that the chicken we buy in a supermarket is so cheap. You can buy a packet of eight chicken breasts for £2. If people consider that this covers caring for a chicken, killing and processing it, and a profit margin, then what kind of a bird is it going to be and what kind of a life has it led?"

The key difference with a posh chicken is that it has a natural life running and foraging. As a result of this muscular activity, its flesh offers a slight, pleasing resistance when you bite - but there's much more. Cooking a good free-range chicken produces a series of pleasing surprises. The bird smells wonderful during cooking. The skin roasts to a crisp, tasty, golden brown. Its juices jellify in the serving tray. The dark meat of its legs is particularly flavoursome. It makes a fantastic chicken pie. The stock from the bones makes superb soup. This is the chicken that was an expensive treat in the Fifties and Sixties before the arrival of cheap broiler-house birds.

We cannot turn the clock back - and even if we did, we might not find it entirely satisfactory. In 1861, Mrs Beeton complained about the output of broiler houses. "The process may produce a handsome-looking bird and it may weigh enough to satisfy the avarice of its stuffer," she wrote, "but when before the fire, it will reveal the cruel treatment to which it has been subjected."

Even if you buy a "free-range" bird, this does not guarantee that it has led a happy life. Sometimes stocking levels are so high that a bird might not get a sniff of the outdoors. Under EU marketing regulations, it is legal to produce a free-range chicken in 56 days, which is better than the broiler version but not long enough to grow the old-fashioned breeds. The "organic" label gives the buyer assurances about stocking levels and quality of feed, but many of Britain's best chicken farmers have not gone the organic route.

Though he grows a few organic birds for supermarkets, Jason Wise of Silverton, near Exeter, who supplies chickens to Michelin-starred chefs Tom Aiken in Chelsea and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, prefers to grow non-organic birds. "We have to pay a large fee to the Soil Association and there are so many limits that it gets complicated." In total, his Ark Chicken Company sells only 150-200 birds a week. They are reared from 70 to 100 days, largely depending on customer requirements. "At one point we reached 500 birds a week but we made the decision to pull back," he said. "We build the arks that the birds live in, we do all the rearing and processing on the farm. It's a lot of work to make sure everything gets done properly." His birds, a slow-growing strain called Devon Speckles, are "free to roam from early morning to last thing at night. On summer nights, you're often waiting, fingers tapping on the bonnet of the truck waiting for the birds to go home."

Jason Wise's best-known customer is Antony Worrall Thompson, who sells Ark birds as "100-day chickens" in his Notting Grill and Kew Grill restaurants. Like Heston Blumenthal, Worrall Thompson stresses the importance of texture. "They roast well and you get a wonderful crackly skin. You don't need heavy sauces. We simply roast it and serve with a herb and roast garlic dressing on the side. We want the chicken to tell its own story. With proper chicken, you're getting meat you can't eat through a straw - you have to use your teeth.

The Farmyard Chicken Co, Temple Farm, Roydon, Essex CM19 5LW (01279 792460 for mail order), or from Wyndham House Poultry in Borough Market, London SE1 (020-7407 1002) or visit www.labelanglais.co.uk. Ark Chicken Co, Moorstone Barton Farm, Cullompton, Devon (01392 881758 for mail order)

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