Louise Gray talks about chicken, a meat that too many of us take for granted, and explains why we should always ask questions
There is a scene in the US television series Portlandia that has become part of comedy legend. It features a man and a woman going to a restaurant and ordering chicken. Every time the waitress comes up, they have more questions. “Is the chicken free-range? If so, how far could it range?” and “What was it fed?” Eventually the waitress loses her rag and fetches the chicken’s résumé. He’s called Colin.
It’s a very funny scene and, apologies if I’m cutting a little close to the bone here, but it could be Borough Market, right? I certainly know I have bent many a butcher’s ear asking 101 questions about where meat is from.
Of course, you can push it too far, and I laugh at myself as much as others, but there is a serious point here. How animals are raised is important; especially chickens. In my book The Ethical Carnivore, I wanted to draw special attention to chickens—not just because it is the most popular meat we eat in this country but because, as anyone who keeps laying hens knows, they are characterful little birds. Chickens have a sophisticated social hierarchy and better numeracy skills than toddlers. Yet when it comes to eating its meat, we almost seem to forget they’re an animal. How many reluctant meat-eaters do you know who eat chicken?
Scratching around the countryside
In the UK we eat chicken almost as a staple. It is available as a snack in petrol stations as ‘mini bites’. Every day, we eat 2.2 million chickens. But have you ever seen chickens scratching around in the countryside? It’s unlikely. That is because 95 per cent are kept indoors in those long low barns that you see from the motorway. Most sheds will house at least 25,000 birds, the biggest have 40,000 and some farms have up to 10 sheds. The UK limit for stocking density is 39kg per square metre—barely an A4 piece of paper for each chicken.
The chickens are generally kept in dim lighting to encourage less movement and therefore faster growth. In some farms, the birds are bred to grow such big breasts so fast, that it can cause them to topple over, a condition known as ‘going off their legs’. The chickens are barely 40 days old by the time they reach slaughter weight.
It is always worth asking questions about chickens. An organic chicken will mean the bird has lived twice as long and perhaps even caught a worm outdoors. It will also be a slower-growing bird. For just a small extra cost, the Red Tractor scheme gives birds a bit more space than the legal requirement and RSPCA assurance ensures birds have sunshine and somewhere to dust bathe, as well as live a little longer. More detail about the various labels is available online.
Heart, liver and gizzard
At Borough Market, they may not be able to tell you the personal name of the chicken or hand out his résumé, but you will get more detail than in any supermarket. Allyson Munro, the butcher at Wyndham House Poultry, can tell you the provenance of all the birds she sells. Her most famous, the Label Anglais breed, live outdoors for 80 days. This means a very lean meat, as the animal has exercised. It will cost significantly more at £7.90 kg, but included in the cost is the ‘giblets’—the heart, liver and gizzard (or stomach)—to make gravy.
Allyson insists the bird will also go further, as the meat is denser from muscle built up living outdoors. She says once customers have tasted chicken how “it used to taste”, they will always come back for more—no question.