It’s been more than four years since I coined ‘Eggs on Legs’ to describe the miserable chickens sold by most supermarkets and many butchers who know no better. It has been my cry out at the woeful state of industrial chicken production aided by complicit retailers driven by greed. Good chicken in our kitchen at No 19 is a passion – and we go without rather that eat an ‘Egg on Legs’.
Systematic thinning of the chicken business by big retailers has led us to a place we’d rather not be – two huge high volume suppliers providing near identical hybrid chickens to just about all the major supermarkets in the UK – between them, they probably slaughter +20m birds each week. The bulk of this is a fast growing hybrid aged just 30-32 day at kill.
Thanks be, there are an increasing number of smaller independent poultry companies which are rearing better chicken**. The massive output of the two industrial-scale giants has no place in a Blue Collar Gastronaut’s kitchen.
The crucial difference lies in two words: good poultry companies ‘farm’ and ‘rear’ their birds; industrial companies employ ‘growers’ to ‘grow’ their chickens.
Even supermarket ‘Free Range’ chickens beg questions over here – the minimum standard for these birds is 56 days at kill. This is because the rules state the birds must spend half their lives with access to outdoors – at 28 days from hatching they have just about enough plumage to survive outdoors.
Unless stated otherwise, or labelled ‘Organic’, these birds will also have been fed on GM soya to boost growth. The soya mostly comes shipped in from Brazil – so food miles are best forgotten too. Let’s say they went out of the portholes mid-Atlantic.
Cross the Channel and we find a different scenario based on a smarter rearing regime for Free Range. Rather than express the birds to the abattoir at 56 days, a typical Poulet Fermier lives on to minimum of 80-84 days and are selected for their slow rate of growth.
Those from Loué (one of France’s largest poultry producers) are guaranteed GM free – the label boldly states ‘Sans OGM‘. Back in 1999 Loué decided genetically modified feed was not their way forward – they also found that +75% of French consumers would have none of it either.
Monsieur Vaugarny, the guy in the centre of this photo from Loué’s weekly poultry market in the 1950s, went on to found Les Fermiers de Loué – such are they that they have only had him and one other CEO in 50+ years – consistency like this cannot help rub off.
Now here’s the rub. A Poulet Fermier, certified as Label Rouge™ that has been farmed ‘enlevé en liberté‘ costs cent-for-cent pretty much the same as a British 56 day old hybrid fed on GM soya and reared in outdoors – but in enclosures at 4000 birds per acre.
Farming ‘en liberté’ is the highest of three EU Free Range standards, meaning quite simply that the birds are free to wander as far as they wish from their houses. The farmers keep their flocks fed, but never to excess – this way the hungry birds behave naturally and ‘free range’ to find food. Being omnivores, they find insects, snails, worms, seeds and all sorts else as they strut about. It is this free ranging ‘en liberté’ , along with a third more ageing, that gives their meat good texture as well as flavour.
What I call ‘Eggs with Legs’ just for this article is another bird altogether. What the English call Poussin, the French term Coquelet – most times a young male of around 28 days of age, the choice ones weighing in for the table at around 300/350g. In France, a poussin is a ‘day old’ – a newly hatched chick – so it follows a Coquelet becomes for me an ‘Egg with Legs‘ because their rearing is valid and, when fed 100% on cereals, their meat tender and sweet.
I like to think, like bobby calves reared on for veal, these young male birds are valued for their meat – rather than facing instant despatch soon after hatching. Just as a bobby (male) calf can’t produce milk, large scale egg producers want only hens and very few good cockerels to keep the flocks happy. Given 50:50 is the ratio of all species being born male or female, we must encourage a good short life rather than wasteful despatch moments after birth. Please be clear, nowhere do I condone poor welfare but wish every bird or beast a good life until inevitable slaughter – and a happy 28 days for these chirpy little birds is good for me.
At 28 days, the coquelet table weight is around 300-350g. The ‘Egg on Legs’ British hybrid will be and oven ready 1.5kg by its 30-32 days. That’s a perfect focus on slow and fast rearing of chickens. Take your pick and vote with your purse.
So to the stoves with four fresh Coquelet Jaune -‘jaune’ because their diet was predominantly maize rather than wheat. Corn fed chicken goes back to a time when maize was grown exclusively for animal feed – and still mercifully is in most of France’s food production.
I snip out the wishbones and wing tips for better presentation, then make sure each is as dry as possible inside and out.
Nose tail they are arranged in a terracotta cazuela – kinder than steel for their short roasting. The older the cazuela the better it’ll be – some last just one outing before cracking – others go on for ever.
Alongside goes peeled pears and black grapes – a torn bay leaf and a whole crushed, but unpeeled, garlic clove goes into each bird’s cavity. Then olive oil over the top, a light sprinkle of coarse salt grains and into a 180°C oven for 20/25′.
Near end of cooking take off the roasting juices and mix with a quick made stock of the bird trimmings padded out with browned onion, shallot, celery and carrot. That should have been simmering for an hour. Now reduce by a quarter – strain and bring together with a generous tablespoon of crème fraîche and a noisette (a knob) of salted butter – go as heavy or light as your family prefers. Whisk through before pouring through a fine mesh sieve onto the roast coquelets and fruit. Give them 3-4′ back in the oven.
This is perfect timing to braise the lettuce – once the interview trial for aspiring chefs in France’s grander restaurant kitchens. Take one Little Gem per head, trimmed and halved – turn several times in a little butter until warmed through and they’ve taken a little colour. Job done.
Bring to table with the chickens and fruit. Serve with peeled baked potatoes that have then been roasted and crisped in rendered pork or duck fat. Best to bake old potatoes the day before – allow to cool and set – then quarter and peel before roasting. I promise a special texture. Maris Piper are excellent for this technique.
Other fruits could be used with the little chickens – dessert apples (then use a good cider in the sauce), prunes (add a splash of Armagnac or Marc to the sauce), agrumes (mix of orange, grapefruit and lemon – with maybe a 2-3 splashes of vodka or rum) – be loose and love the journey.
TO COME: More on the chicken business to follow in the New Year when I pluck, draw and tell what is good, how to find it** – and what’s best avoided by a country mile or ten. My report will be published here and maybe elsewhere.
We will travel from West Wales to the Marches and the Midlands, to Dorset and East Anglia – and we cross to France, Belgium, etc. The mission is simple – to find good tasting and textured, well reared chickens.