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.
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."
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."
Otter Valley Poultry
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."
Poulet De Bresse
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."
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."
Label Anglais Special Reserve
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."