‘Could try harder’ was a repeating phrase in my school reports. It applies to the +£1 billion pa British chicken business too. Where some are trying specially hard, others patently are lagging behind. At risk of appearing to over-simplify, let me explain the bigger picture.
This centres on biosecurity – a term that came to the fore with repeated problems with salmonella in the 80s. Bird ‘Flu – avian influenza – sharpened the role and created plenty new jobs and heaps of work for testing laboratories, technologists and their ilk. More hype and expense as bird ‘flu never arrived – and never would - because it’s tranferred to us humans only when we breathe in the breath of a diseased chicken – in other words cock-fighting (popular in the Far East), or having chickens as pets for the children to play with at close quarters, also popular in villages in Thailand, Vietnam, etc.
I’m not saying there’s no need to ensure food is safe – it’s a fundamental right of the person buying it at the end of the food chain. But if they pay pennies, they can only expect what they get. There is no such thing as cheap food – I’ll explain why another day.
Most times – you read right, most times – opting for the cheapest on the shelf buys you one of the millions of Eggs on Legs sold weekly in this country. These are hybrids, genetically manipulated (not ‘modified’) over decades to convert feed into meat ever faster – see the damp and flabby speicimen on the right above – the bird on the right is a Poulet Noir breed, commonplace in French supermarkets and no more costly than a free range hybrid over here.
What’s shocking is that the 35 day old chicken in this base category is becoming a rarity – most are around or close to 30 days – in old money, that’s but a month from an egg hatching to a chicken on the table.
Enormous strides have been made to limit the spread of salmonella. The Which? sample found only 1.5% in their recent sample of 192 birds. Listeria was a more worrying 4.0% because listeria a far more serious issue, particularly if contracted by the very young, old, sick or poorly.
One very smart food scientist I know once told me if you can’t find trace of listeria in a food plant, kitchen or any other premises where food is prepared, then you are not looking hard enough. It’s there whatever you try to do.
Testing like this costs enormous sums of money and ultimately we pay the bill. Campylobacter has reared its head because £millions have been spent on a research and eradication programme these last 8-10 years. The Food Standards Agency has made it one of their missions in their current term. The FSA is never slow in crowing about its achievements, so that too needs viewing with both our eyes wide shut.
The big issue with chicken, unlike any other meat, is we only eat it under-cooked by accident. Even fashionable sushi bars have steered clear of chicken sashimi.
One of Belgium’s finest Grand Mâitres, Chef Rudi de Volder, of the acclaimed T’convent restaurant in West Flanders (00 32 57 40 07 71), reared his own birds for a few years. He’s a culinary adventurer, because he also has succeeded in growing the precious melanosporum black truffle on his land adjoining the restaurant. He fed his pure breed birds on a 7 cereal diet – and so confident was Rudi that his birds were clear of any of the usual diseases encouraged by industrial food production, he made Carpaccio of Chicken Breast a highlight on his daily menu. He never, ever had a problem – my partner, stopping by on her way through to meet me in Brussels, had the famous T’convent chicken carpaccio when she was several months pregnant.
Rudi was right because these diseases are about numbers. Large scale livestock production is rarely, if ever, without disease. That we always eat chicken cooked through, so rarely are cases of poisoning reported. When they are, they are inevitably down to slovenly kitchen practices.
The best is always the best – and Bresse is up at the top. Breeder, Thierry Desmaris, seen here with a roulé Bresse AOC chicken at the recent Paris Salon – these birds were prepared specially for the show – normally they are only ever presented en-roulé for Christmas. Aiming for the top has always driven me more than the race to the bottom so loved by cut throats in the food business.
So my readers, don’t be caught in the hype surrounding these dreadful and fearfully sounding conditions. Just make sure you cook your chicken well – not over-cooked please, just well enough so the juices run clear and not pink.
More important is to walk away from cheap chicken – the Eggs on Legs. Vow to never buy one again. Instead buy something else and wait until you can afford the few pounds more for a free range chicken with at least 70 days life before arriving in your kitchen.
I am confident we will have Poulet Fermier birds in this country in the not too far off future – these will be a minimum of 84 days, pure breeds and reared outdoors on a guaranteed non-GMO diet – almost certainly Label Rouge certified too (see label above). I’m close to my favourite poultry co-operative – Loué in Normandy – and working to this end.
Spend more and you get more. Always look for pure breeds, they are the ones with the long legs and raised breast bone – a shape more like a Guinea fowl than a Grade A British chicken, complete with its sad little Red Tractor and all the rest of the ‘campaign decorations’ – or ‘bullcorn’ as Dell Gribble would rightly say.
I am passionate about speciality poultry so ask me any questions you wish and I’ll get you straightforward answers – not the weasel responses from those with an interest in being sparing with their words. Push me and I’ll name names.
Like I said before, if you feel lured by price to buy an Egg on Legs – I can’t imagine why – then take the fresh route and enjoy an omelette made with genuine free range eggs and some fine butter, preferably churned (en baratte) from unpasteurised full cream milk – what the French call Beurre Cru.
As Blue Collar Gastronauts we have to nail this downwards drift to Egg on Legs. No cooking method, nor sauce has been created that can transform these miserable short legged, blousy breasted birds into anything approaching a feast – and to Blue Collar Gastronauts, every meal is a feast for which we are thankful.
And don’t try Rudi de Volder’s Chicken Carpaccio at home either. He wouldn’t be pleased to hear you’d done that.