‘Eggs with Legs’ v ‘Eggs on Legs’

IMG_0315 - Copy (400x290)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.

3 (223x300)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.

IMG_1983 (225x300) 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.IMG_7970 (300x44) (2)

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.

IMG_1988 (225x300)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.

IMG_0911 (255x300) (2)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.

IMG_0947 (300x225)When their time comes, like male quails, they are handled by specialist built-for-purpose abattoirs – thanks be, a mainstream chicken factory is not adjustable to the smaller weight birds.

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.

IMG_0941 (225x300)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. IMG_0955 (225x300)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.IMG_0944 (300x225)

This splendid dinner cost less thIMG_0478 (225x300)an £2.50 a head thanks to canny shopping in a lively market where the jokes and laughing came free. That beats supermarket shopping on three counts then.

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. photo - Copy (230x300)IMG_0980 (300x225)IMG_2357 (187x300)IMG_0974 (300x225)bresse tasting 12 - Copy (225x300)


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Dinner for One

With one article I bring together 2000 years – first with Lucullus (118-57BC) and then with Freddie Frinton’s iconic 11-minute short ‘Dinner for One’ filmed by NDR German TV in 1963 – said to be the most watched short film ever made – http://youtu.be/zVd_VLO9xcc

Lucius Licinius Lucullus has long fascinated me. It is written he was reprimanded his manservant for serving him a modest evening meal: “What, did you not know that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus”. Meals at the Villa Lucullus were famed for their extravagance – and today we take the words ‘luxury’ in food and so ‘gastronomy’ as being rooted in his name ‘Lucullus’. Today we have the ‘Véritable Lucullus’ – a foie gras marbré from Valenciennes created in the 1930s as a speciality for funeral wakes – check out and enjoy this delicacy at http://ww.lucullus-valenciennes.fr

Lucullus was the philanthropic Roman who is credited as bringing us the Morello Cherry and Apricot from his campaigns in Asia Minor. Horti Lucullus on the Pincian Hill above Rome was a garden designed solely for food production. Swiss Chard came also to table c/o Lucullus – IMG_7703 (300x176)and I read of him having fattening coops for thrushes to be sure his kitchen never ran short of the ‘tordi‘ still loved in Lazio today – and my treat to cook on a visit to Frascati last Spring.IMG_7665 (300x300)



Freddie Frinton was a different soul all together. His career on the pre-WW2 music hall stage became set in stone with ‘Dinner for One’ that has been cult viewing each New Year’s Eve in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland for more than 40 years. Popular too across Scandinavia, the film is screened on December 23rd in Norway – asked why December 23rd, nobody I spoke to knew why, but all said they would not miss the screening for anything.

Frinton refused to permit the film to be over-dubbed or sub-titled, but even non-English speaking Germans know every line as Frinton’s butler serves the New Year’s Eve dinner to Miss Sophie – with her four absent friends still remembered after near quarter of a century since they departed, but for this night remembered as seated at table. Frinton, a teetotaller, plays becoming drunk with aplomb – he once said it was ‘staggering difficult’ to play a convincing drunk on stage.

Miss Sophie ended her butler’s repeated question about courses and the choice of wine “Same procedure as last year M’lady?” with “Same procedure as last year, James”. Germans in Hamburg I knew would shout this out on cue as they prepared for their New Year’s Eve.

Lucullus made clear he ate as well when alone as with guests. I have experienced many meals on my travels where I have dined well when alone. Practicalities first – the lone diner is the kitchen’s dream client. There is no balancing one dish against another to be sure both leave the pass in cooked perfection.

I used to take a book or magazine to table when alone. Now I prefer to sit, eat, sip, watch and enjoy every moment. In Belgium one inevitable strikes up conversation with the next table – then one shares your choice of wine with them and vice-versa. I can remember leaving table after digestif’s and cigars as tables around were being prepared for the dinner service.

In Italy I have been invited to parties in palazzo’s – one back around 1980/81 turned out to be a welcome home party for two Red Brigade members just released from a Spanish prison – most there wore Missoni, dangled Rolex’s and the car park was nearly exclusively red cars, as in Testarossa. I made out I didn’t understand what was going on. I’d been driven there from central Milan in a prof’s grey 2-CV. All this happened because I didn’t know the word for ‘ice’ for my Campari when eating alone in a pavement trattoria – the people on the next table said “ghiaccio!” and conversation took off from there.

Back to the table for one and some tips. Enjoy your apéritif whilst reading the menu – leave no stone unturned. Ask about specials and about dishes chef likes to serve – this can lead to a dish off-menu and so questions from your neighbours – the ice is broken. Make a friend of the Maître D so much so he reports to the kitchen that the solo diner on table X warrants special attention.  Ask advice from the sommelier like maybe you wouldn’t if dining with friends and time to talk amongst your group was precious.

IMG_8770 (225x300)I love pigeonneau and many kitchens across Belgium will keep a few in reserve, even though they are not featured on the menu. I have been offered dishes which are still in test once I have agreed to give my opinion. An exquisitely prepared carpaccio of raw farm chicken breast was just one such dish – new potatoes piled high and inter-leaved with black truffle was another in mid-France.

Hop shoots – now being harvested in Kent although I have yet to find any there – are a Springtime speciality in restaurants in Flanders. They are like bitter asparagus and fearfully expensive – one chef near Poperinge gave me a small bag of these fresh hopscheut to take away as he was keen my family in London could taste one of Flander’s gastronomic treats.

Eels in green sauce – Paling in’t groen – is again a dish best enjoyed alone. Some people find even the sight of eels on a plate as unpalatable, so best eaten when alone.  This is one of those dishes that has its sauce made green with whatever fresh herbs are to hand – chervil stays most popular, but some chefs use mint, sorrel, parsley and watercress. The Restaurant ‘Au Bain Marie’ on the road into Ghent was such an occasion – Rotisserie St Vincent in Brussels was another.

Eating alone at the Belvédère at Saint Jean Bruneval – high up on the chalky white cliffs between Le Havre and Étrètat – was a sensation. I was rewarding myself, a thin excuse, for writing near 10,000 words in my still unfinished manuscript of a dark story about people trafficking and the Foreign Legion (I promise they do link and for the better). I’d gone alone to Étrètat for a week to research and write – I wanted 2,000 words a day minimum and the scene is set there based on a series of real local characters. Jacky, listen up. IMG_9359photo (31)

IMG_9306On the final day I’d heard so many good reports on the Belvédère that I drove there on chance for lunch. Busy as they were they found me a seat next to the curving panoramic windows looking out to sea. As I took a sip from my first drink a paraglider came past the window. I sipped again and with it came two more. The waiter told me that it was a well known location for the sport which involves running off the cliff top with wings made of parachutes. The tiny Le Havre International Airport is next door but I saw not one ‘plane that lunch time, but silent paragliders kept on coming and added to the serenity of the setting high up on the falaises. The cooking was exquisite.

Drinking alone is a whole different thing and females need to be cautious in their choice of bar. My father was engaged with Elizabeth Taylor in the Sherbourne in Dublin – they passed pleasantries and my father made the error of offering her a drink. From nowhere arrived a tough man in a black leather overcoat tie belted like only Frenchmen like Alain Delon can do. He got to dine out on the encounter to any who would listen for years. I prefered the tale of how he bought a donkey foal in Waterford and had it on the back seat of the car until he arrived at the ferry port – there he gave it away as he was not allowed to bring the little ass back to Wales.

Back in Belgium and Brussels, I walked into a brown bar between the Grand Place and the Bourse one rainy evening in mid-winter. I was alone and no others came in – the streets were wet, cold and near empty. The music was good – jazz classics like Coltrane, Monk and Miles (funny how we never say Davis). I set about talking about jazz to the patronne. She was impressed ‘I knew well my jazz’. She started talking about Charlie Parker and his visit to Europe. Then she went upstairs and returned with a little well worn photo-album and a small bundle of treasured letters tied with a narrow blue ribbon.

It turned out this lady, who like her bar has no name I can recall, had a short but deep affair with Bird. Maybe in the haze of excitement I got this all wrong and she’d met him in the USA. Either way the photos were small snaps, sepia and crinkly edged. The affection was clear – the man was Charlie Parker and the lady was the one pouring my drinks that night.

Would any of these chance encounters have happened if I was with others. I reckon not. Thank you Jonell Galloway and Elatia Harris for triggering me to write this piece.



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Fatted Calf for First Born

IMG_5128What a day that was – 24 hours unfold from being tipped by First Born that he was coming home four days early from near three months in a Welsh seaside town. Instructions were clear – must be driven home along the Thames and through the City, to feed on roast lamb with artichokes and to keep the homecoming a big surprise from Junior.IMG_6823

Time to kill the fatted calf, so out early to market**. I was after lamb and all around was tempted by fish, seafood, game and offal – but the brief was strict. First Born wanted to savour the sweet meat of the woolly beasts he sees and hears daily as he pounds up the long hill between house and faculty.

A thick 2+ kilo side of wild salmon had my name on it.IMG_0877 (300x225)

We talked of a grey Triggerfish being caught off Hastings the night before – the boat has caught four in as many months. Small and active Scottish lobsters, hen crabs and tiny French mussels (en bouchot) had me thinking pasta and peperoncino – but no, lamb and artichokes was requested so best stay on course.

On up through the shouty market to the butcher. Here were lamb legs on offer,  but only one shoulder. I was 4th in the queue. I had two heavy bags of prawns for the man behind the counter – Bob Fish made me his mule and oh boy, does one’s cred soar when such things happen. Two customers in front buy their meat by money – meaning “may I have £12 of oxtail and £10 of baby back rib – oh, and two trotters, from the back legs if there’s a choice”. That’s often how meat and fish are bought in the market by canny shoppers who know their cuts.

My turn comes and the shoulder’s still on the hook in full view to all-comers in a well stocked, high piled window. Is it enough for four and a guest? I buy a rolled piece of pork belly – I’m thinking porchetta piccolo. The skin tells me this is from a good pig.

A drop into a produce shop and I find artichokes. I ask if they have more – sub-text for ‘can I go into the cold room?’. I take my pick from a new box of Spanish ‘chokes – not globes, but the more pointy romanesco strain. In early December in south London, these were a find. In Brindisi, they were be normal fare – I was there just a year ago.

Back to No 19 and prep, picking thyme and rosemary from Fitzy’s free herb garden on the way.

I had the scapula bone removed from the lamb shoulder, using the bone as a trivet in the cazuela – when slow roasting, terracotta is somehow gentler than steel. Both meats are rubbed with olive oil and sea salt. They go into the middle of a 180°C oven. I squeeze the juice of a lemon (£1 a bowl for 10) over the lamb and put the fresh picked thyme inside where the bone had been.

IMG_0869 (270x300)After 30′ roasting, the lamb has more fresh lemon and a dousing of white wine (Orvieto) – another follows 15′ on. The pork has nothing as the skin needs to crackle.

The artichokes come next. Off with all the outer leaves, strip back the base leaving as much stem as you can. Cut off half the trimmed back top and immerse in water and lemon juice (one lemon squeezed into a large bowl of water is tip top).

IMG_0858 (239x300)Then cut into quarters and quarters again – taking away any hairy choke by cutting into the base (fond) in a deft left to right move. Six artichokes would have taken me 20′ a few years back – now it’s half that or less – so practice does make perfect.

IMG_0874 (225x300)These are then fried off in olive oil in small batches. You tell they are cooked by tasting after 4-5′ (cook’s treat – if you’re not sure, take another). Small strips of pancetta or guanciale lift an amazing dish yet further up aloft. Artichokes are good for heart, liver and moreover, the soul.IMG_0862 (225x300)

Potatoes, roughly chipped and steamed to al-dente, are then roasted off in olive oil (this meal has no French roots, so no duck / goose fat this time) with masses of rosemary at half way stage – ie after 20′. ‘Masses’ means at least six sprigs – eight would have been better still.  Roasting lamb shoulder, pork belly and potatoes in rosemary in your oven transcends the cook down the M2, across the Channel and on down to Italy.

IMG_0275 (300x225)Now for No 19 tradition. The meats are rested  and then brought to table on a carving board. Everyone has a sharp knife. There are side plates for the vegetables. A pan of rich sauce, finished with Vincotto, is to hand.IMG_0867 (225x300)

Each guest in turn carves away at the two joints with their knife – there is not protocol. Just carve – in fact don’t carve, but slice as each diner wishes. Then come again until the joints are no more. The mouse stays until the end and guests get first call.IMG_0282 (300x190)

We are happy.IMG_0274 (225x300)

Except cook forgot to finish and serve the beets.IMG_0863 (225x300)




**‘The Market’ is on Deptford High Street, London SE8 – each Wednesday,Friday and Saturday – opens from 7am to around 4pm. IMG_0279 (192x300)

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