Pecking order: How to get a better breed of bird
The rich taste of properly reared chicken is a revelation to those of us used to mass-produced meat. No wonder restaurants are taking poultry provenance so seriously, says Sudi Pigott.
Chickens are strutting their stuff like never before. And it's not only pullets proud to flaunt their pedigree; cocks (it's rude to snigger), too, are back on the menu, cooked long and slow until their distinctive, silky, succulent meat falls away from the bone with the most gentle persuasion.
Not only are some of the UK's most talked-about Young Turks serving up chicken "snacks" (try Issac McHale's signature buttermilk and pine fried chicken at his just-opened Upstairs at The 10 Bells), there's a whole roster of chicken-led eateries opening in the late summer – even Nick Jones of Soho House is getting in on the chicken act.
What's more, chicken's breeds are increasingly name-checked – think Cornish Red, Kentish Ranger or Dorking (yes, the names do usually refer to where they were first bred, like any good English surname) and boast the kind of gastronomic and ethical special credentials – up to 100 days of no-boundary wanderlust, dry-plucked and hung for a week with guts in for full-on depth of flavour – now de rigeur on menus among similarly name-checked beef and pork.
"I predict that poultry provenance will be the next big trend in restaurants and sustainability," says Mark Linehan, managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). It's about time we took chicken more seriously. For many, its their default everyday protein, expectations are low, and if the chicken pieces are slavered in spicy sauce, it's relatively hard to tell the difference.
"There's a long way to go: 1.4 million tons of chickens are produced annually in the UK and of those only 2.8 per cent are even entry-level free-range. Though knowing the breed of chicken and serving free-range are two different matters, there is a strong connection. The slower maturing chickens best suited to longer and fuller totally free-ranging life tend to be the breeds to seek out as well as of far higher welfare."
Shockingly, most commercially reared birds have been bred to be docile and not inclined to move around, even given the opportunity. They put down protein and grow fast without developing proper bone structure. They don't develop much leg meat. Brits have come to favour breast over leg and thigh, though it is hard to know whether this is nature or nurture when there have hardly been any alternatives available for decades.
It has to be said that the French are way ahead with their world-famous, Burgundian benchmark AOC (since 1957) Poulet de Bresse with its aristocratic snow-white feathers and blue legs, that feeds on corn and spring water. Alain Ducasse swears by their delicate, juicy flavour. Yet, less than 5 per cent are exported.
Chris Frederick, of Temple Farm in Essex, who began producing Label Anglais back in the early 1990s based on slow-growing Cornish Red, was way ahead of the curve in producing cut-above chooks. The Label Anglais average an 80-day lifespan and have virtually unlimited space to roam and feed on Temple Farm's own wheat.
Luke Matthews, executive chef of Chewton Glen, was one of his first customers. He says: "They're proper chickens of generous proportion yet with more slender breasts – like poulet de Bresse but English. Their rich yet not too strong or dense flavour and texture combine to make an incredibly satisfying and special eat."
After finishing every morsel of a chicken breast (water-bathed at 65C for 30 minutes – head chef Andrew du Bourg insists this is the best treatment to showcase its exceptional flavour) served with sautéed New Forest morels, crushed broad beans with crème fraîche, chargrilled courgettes, truffle tapioca and sweetcorn and mint chicken jus, I had to agree.
Ever on to a gastronomic winning streak, Jody Scheckter, of Laverstoke Park, is breeding French origin "Naked Necks" that truly roam free, pecking on the farm's grass leys made up of 31 herbs, clovers and grasses. They are rotated around the fields weekly to keep them on full alert and enjoy an exceptionally long life – they're killed at 105 days. They have meat, especially on their striking legs, that is darker in colour and stronger in texture and taste. Henry Harris of Racine, a fan, pinpoints the "Laverstoke Naked Neck" as "properly deep-flavoured and assertive while clean. A cheap chicken tastes dirty."
Aresounding endorsement that chicken of fulsome breed is more than a fly-by-night trend is the newest contender for most sought-after breed. The butcher Ginger Pig, renowned for producing some of the best-cared for animals grass to fork, introduced The Ginger Pig 100-day + chicken a month ago. It's a cross between a Cornish Game cockerel and a Sussex or Dorking hen, way bigger than the average bird, regularly reaching an awesome 2kg, reared outdoors, free-ranging over grass and herbage on the Belvoir Estate on the border of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire.
They're grown to full maturity from 93-110 days, dry-plucked, hung for a week and labelled as cockerels (especially suited to pot-roasting) or pullets (almost gamey in their flavour, too, and a fantastic roast, also best cooked long and slow at 160C for at least 2 hours). They are exceptionally succulent, rich and inherently buttery in taste, and produce wonderful, bright, beautifully scented stock that solidifies into a fine jelly (the acid test according to my chicken-devotee Jewish mother). Already, both Isaac McHale, of Ten Bells, and Elliot's Cafe, of Borough Market, have put in their first orders.
Idiosyncratic chefs who put quality and provenance at the heart of their menus are seeking out their own more arcane chicken breeds, too, for something different. Charlie Lakin, of East Kent's Marquis at Alkham, fulsomely extols the full, rich, practically gamey flavour of Kentish Ranger chickens bred at Monkshill Farm in Kent. Explains Lakin: "After dry-plucking, they're hung for four days, which gives them exceptional oomph."
Of course, such ultra breeds come in at a steepish price – up to three times more than a conventional free-range bird – and they're rightly seen as a luxury on a par with a fine leg of lamb or turbot, rather than an everyday default choice. Inevitably this sparks debate as to whether the new wave of posh, fast-food, chicken-led joints will be as transparent in flagging their breeds.
Cass Titcombe, one of the founders of Canteen, is setting the bar high, declaring he will be serving slow-reared Norfolk Hubbard with "a great meat to bone ratio, not too lean, with consistently great savoury flavour" at his new venture, Roost in Soho, opening this autumn. Such is Titcombe's belief that "we all crave great chicken, it's the ultimate, nostalgic comfort food" that he will only be serving the bird in three ways.
Besides the enhanced taste factor and higher welfare, slow-reared breed birds are more nutritious, too. According to a forthcoming report commissioned by Compassion in World Farming, they have a lower fat content and the composition of fat is more beneficial, too, with significantly higher levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, more iron and vitamin E. I can't help wondering if the Chancellor, George Osborne, is about to spin his own variation on Henry IV's infamous quip wishing that everyone could enjoy a well-bred chicken in the pot on a Sunday.
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