Food and Drink: Nothing to crow about

THIS IS the year of the rooster, noisy braggard, figure of domestic absurdity. When we say that someone rules the roost, and few males now do, we are simply corrupting the old adage of ruling the roast, distributing the meat: 'I domineer, and rule the roast.'

None the less, I suppose that most of us, given our choice of reincarnations, would not opt to be chickens. The linguistic aura surrounding the word is not exactly propitious - ranging from chicken shit (petty nuisance) to feeling chicken (cowardly), from chicken feed (cheap, devalued) to being no spring chicken (to be not so young as one might think oneself). The life of the chicken is neither long nor pleasant. The male is not much in demand (understandable, as his functions are limited); the female labours mightily and daily for our breakfasts, and life expectancy is increasingly short.

In fact, about the only good thing one could say on behalf of chickens is that within my lifetime they have passed from being an aspiration and a treat, to being the commonest and cheapest of meats: a factor that bespeaks our methods of food production as much as our understanding of cooking.

A chicken is a quick turnaround. Investment is not great, land use is limited, productivity high, therefore market price is low. My wife remembers from 30 years ago the feed and chemical company Pfizer telling her how a six-month-old chicken could now be as fat as a full-grown one, and progress has been made since. At the expense, of course, of flavour - as is usual in the agri- business.

What has really happened in the marketing of chickens is that we have become a little more discerning. There are hundreds of ways of preparing chicken, but they can be split into two distinct categories: those in which the flavour of the chicken (that rare quality) is important and those in which it matters not one iota.

On the latter point, I need only refer you to Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken, the two secrets of which are: the method of cooking (under pressure, to retain moisture) and the (secret ingredient) sauce supposed to impart flavour. The same is true of the dozens of fast-food franchises that are basic variations on battered and deep-fried chicken, once known as 'southern fried'. In all these cases, as in the myriad ways in which chicken is prepared in China and throughout Asia, the fact that chicken is the heart of the dish is only incidental to the flavours with which it blends.

It would not be stretching a point, either, to say that the Hispanic or Latin American chicken suffers a not much better culinary fate: that of being, as the mutton cutlet once was for us, the absolutely basic fare in the most desperately basic restaurant. Cooked beyond recognition, accompanied by a few tinned peas and a dollop of soggy fries, you can eat chicken around the world without giving the matter a second thought.

On the other side of the coin, chicken that you might value as a dish in and of itself is both rare and expensive. My wife was shocked, last summer, to find a chicken of any pretension cost pounds 7 and that was before the pound plummeted. This was not even the prized poulet de Bresse, but a poulet fermier, a free-range chicken which might have been fed on something of an organic rather than a chemical nature.

From this distinction, a rule follows: it is pointless to lavish culinary care on a mass- produced chicken. It will not reward you with flavour. And, as much of the culinary effort that has gone into cooking chicken concerns dishes in which the flavour of the chicken is of the essence, the distinction is important. By all means use a supermarket bird to make a chicken marengo or a coq au vin - both recipes designed to reduce a tough barnyard fowl to edible form.

A further rule says that the dark meat of a chicken (the legs and thighs, the only part of its anatomy ever exercised, even in the smallest coop) has, whatever the chicken, some flavour, but the white, the breast (barring a naturally matured chicken), does not. It follows that all dishes which employ chicken breasts (save the oriental or Kentucky Fried versions) should use expensive, selected chickens. A chicken breast fed only on commercial feed will be bland.

That blandness is the reason why chicken breasts are used in dishes combining complex flavours: the chicken does not interefere with the mix. But when the ingredients are as simple as, say, good butter, a fresh lemon, tarragon plucked from the branch, then whatever is added to the chicken exists only to enhance the natural flavour of the fowl.

Our best country chickens in Italy came with their intestines still gorged on local maize, a sort of last meal before execution. Well, when was the last time you found anyhing inside your chicken but a soggy piece of cellulose including the 'unwanted' parts? Buyer beware: who has not lived a full life also has no flavour.