Home to roast: Are designer chickens worth the money?

Forget the £2.99 broiler. Christopher Hirst discovers how gourmet super-birds are carving out an appetising – and lucrative – niche

The news that a south London butcher is selling chickens at £30 apiece made the headlines this week. Reared in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the free-range birds grow to about 4kg in 14 weeks. Selling for £7.95 per kilo, these super-chicks are eight times as expensive as an average supermarket bird. Inevitably, they are described by the butcher as "the Rolls-Royce of chickens".

And there are more expensive chickens on sale in London shops. In a comparative tasting, I discovered that these posh birds do merit their stratospheric price tags. They would not seem so staggeringly expensive if we viewed chicken as a rare treat. The problem is that we have become accustomed to chicken as an everyday staple. To achieve that price, most chickens have become bland mediocrities.

Roping in my wife as sous-chef, we cooked six free-range poules de luxe in the manner advocated in Simon Hopkinson's book Roast Chicken and Other Stories: smear with butter and season liberally with salt and pepper; cut a lemon in two, squeeze juice over the bird and put the halves in the cavity with several sprigs of thyme and tarragon; pop in the oven for 15 minutes at 230C, baste, then for a further 45 minutes at 190C; leave to rest for 15 minutes.

The procedure proved less easy than it sounds. Aside from tending three ovens (one requisitioned in a neighbour's house), we had to keep adjusting the times for the Suffolk giant and a petite Poule de Bresse. Tempers frayed as we scuttled up and down the street, lugging scalding hot casseroles full of London's priciest birds. An aroma that was noticeably more mouth-watering than the smell of an average chicken was merely the first compensation for our labours. They proved excellent in a surprising number of ways.

For starters, carving was a doddle. Though I'm no maestro of the carving knife, it was easy to produce long, evenly sized strips. There was none of the crumbly dryness or floppy damp that you get with cheap chicken. The taste of the posh birds, whether breast, leg or even skin, was sensational. Simultaneously rich and delicate, the flavours resonated on the palate, leaving a long, delicious aftertaste. The thick, sticky jelly exuded by the carcasses promised glorious stock from the carcasses.

The cliché "chicken as it used to taste" sprang irresistibly to our lips. It could even be true. I'm old enough to remember when chicken was so expensive that it was reserved for Easter and Christmas, but I wouldn't swear that it tasted quite as good as these expensive fowls.

Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall insists they're worth the investment. "An organic chicken is still considerably cheaper than supermarket sirloin steak. I know which one I'd rather eat. Don't forget you'll be getting two or three meals from the chicken and just one from the steak."

The most exceptional bird in our tasting was the Poulet de Bresse, Though the favoured bird of many top chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, who used it when he tackled roast chicken in his TV series In Search of Perfection, very few of the 1.2 million poulets grown annually in a strictly controlled area are exported from France. The red crown, white feathers and blue feet of this classic item of haute cuisine are said to represent the French tricolour, which might explain why the bird is sold with head and feet intact.

At £30 for a 1.6kg bird, it may seem a form of nourishment restricted to plutocrats. I could say the price is an affordable luxury when compared to the cost of a restaurant meal. A better reason is that it was, by some distance, the best chicken I've ever had. Sheer perfection.

But the bigger British birds were not far behind in the taste stakes. The giants grown by Phil Truin in Bury St Edmunds manage to combine good flavour with sufficient meat for six people. "All are produced from chicks grown literally in his back yard," said Garry Moen, who sells them in Clapham, south London. "He kills, hangs and plucks them himself, so he only does 120 a week. Actually, that's all his wife allows. That's why he does 3kg to 4kg birds. It's the only way he will get the profit."

At Lidgate's, the Holland Park butcher that caters to the well-heeled of west London, Richard Lattimore says: "People definitely more conscious of what they're buying. Slaughterhouses can be terrible, and it affects the quality. If an animal is stressed before being killed, the muscles tense up. Each week, we sell a fair number of chickens at about £22 each from Otter Valley Poultry in Devon."

The wealthy of London may be able to afford classy chickens but producers of free-range birds have been affected by the international increase in grain prices. "Though I'm basically optimistic, it is a challenging time," said Chris Frederick, who rears free-range chickens in Roydon, Essex. He grows two types: a smaller chicken akin to Poulet de Bresse called Label Anglais and based on the Cornish Red breed, which takes 80 to 100 days to reach maturity, and a larger bird called Special Reserve, based on a rustic French breed, which takes 75 to 85 days. "Because the cost of feed shot up by 50 per cent in the past year, we've cut back on production by 10 per cent."

The problem of feed costs is worse for free-range producers because their birds live far longer than broiler chickens. "The average life of a broiler bird is 38 days," said Mr Frederick. "They're going to slaughter as we're putting our birds out to grass."

With the recession, both domestic and commercial customers are trading down to cheaper chickens. "For years we supplied a top West End hotel," said Mr Frederick. "But recently the chef said, 'We've stopped buying premium products'. Of course, the consumer will still be charged for premium products."

He said domestic customers have a misconception about mid-range chickens. "The phrase 'corn-fed chicken' conjures up an image of a chicken outside pecking at a cob of corn. But life for most corn-fed chickens is nothing like that. They have the same life as a standard broiler but they're fed maize in their diet."

Disappointed by the taste of cheaper chickens, I very rarely eat them but the taste of these expensive birds came as a revelation. Eaten warm, the herb-infused meat was so delicate that it seemed a shame even to put gravy on it. Our tendency to smother chicken in sauces and trimmings could explain why we have been content to swallow rubbish birds.

Chris Frederick agreed that restraint on the plate brings out the best in his chickens. "Personally I just eat roast chicken with potatoes and bread sauce and they are fantastic. As I get older, I find bread sauce the perfect accompaniment. You need very little else."

Forget the British habit of having a massive pile on your plate. Just stick to the chicken, but make it a good one and you'll be clucking with joy.

Fosse Meadows

Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Retailer: Allens of Mayfair, Mount Street, London W1

Price per kilo: £7.95

Weight: 2.11 kilos

Price of bird: £18.09

Tasting notes: "Succulent with great depth of flavour and long aftertaste. Legs have good meaty flavour like guinea fowl."

Marks: 9/10

Phil Truin

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Retailer: M Moen & Sons, Clapham, London SW4

Price per kilo: £7.95

Weight: 3.69 kilos

Price of bird: £29.37

Tasting notes: "Breast has lovely resonant flavour with a hint of mushrooms on palate. Really impressive for size."

Marks: 8.5/10

Otter Valley Poultry

Honiton, Devon

Retailer: C Lidgate, Holland Park, London W11

Price per kilo: £9.20

Weight: 1.75 kilos

Price of bird: £17.84

Tasting notes: "A classic roast chicken with really sweet, juicy breast meat. Legs are richly flavoured, somewhat like duck."

Marks: 9/10

Poulet De Bresse

Rhone-Alpes, France

Retailer: Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1

Price per kilo: £19.50

Weight: 1.60 kilos (includes head, guts and legs)

Price of bird: £31.20

Tasting notes: "Fantastic flavour with great finesse. Very hard to stop nibbling bits. Only drawback is there isn't a great deal of it."

Marks: 9.5/10

Packlington Poultry

Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Retailer: Ginger Pig, Borough Market, London SE1

Price per kilo: £6.45

Weight: 2 kilos

Price of bird: £12.90

Tasting notes: "Looks outweigh taste. Lacking in character and depth compared to other free-range birds. Only a brief aftertaste."

Marks: 6/10

Label Anglais Special Reserve

Roydon, Essex

Retailer: M Moen & Sons, Clapham, London SW4

Price per kilo: £6.95

Weight: 2.77 kilos

Price of bird: £19.29

Tasting notes: "Very delicate flavour with moist, melt-in-the-mouth texture and good long aftertaste."

Marks: 8.5/10

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £32,000 Uncapped

    £22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

    £7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones