Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The story of chicken (part one)

Chicken on grass in sunshine, a very simple equation
One Sunday a little while back we roasted a chicken. You may think this is nothing special given we raise pastured chickens. They must have chicken all the time, you think to yourself. But the thing is we don't. This is partly because there is more demand for our chickens than actual chicken available so we often end up selling part of our own share. But it's also because we think chicken should be special. For us, chicken is not an everyday food. We think vegetables and herbs and fruit are everyday food, meat is not. 

I know we've all been sold the notion of cheap chicken. You can get the stuff for $5 per kg in the supermarket. It's probably the cheapest protein around, but there's a price to be paid for this kind of cheap protein. It's the price of a chicken that has literally lived its life in shit and never been outside and the price of anti-biotic resistance and the price of a farmer that is forced to farm so intensively to make a semblance of income and the price of chicken meat seriously bereft of nutrients and the price of environmental catastrophe and the price of forgetting what food can actually taste like....

There was something pretty special about this roast chicken dinner. It happened amidst Annie's chemo regime. Our eating throughout her chemo consisted of a lot of broth and kale and miso and really whatever we could throw together that might satisfy our kids and Annie's very unwell self at the time. Chemotherapy and small farm life and two little kids is a very particular type of chaos. Needless to say, roast chicken dinners were not at the top of the dinner list. But this Sunday we had time and Annie was feeling ok and we had this whopping 3.5kg chicken in our freezer so we fired (literally) up our wood oven and created a little something special for ourselves. 

Big fella out of freezer

Holy smoke - what a delicious sight
A 3.5kg chicken, WTF?! I know I know... we'd grown it in Autumn. Autumn is a very good time for growing chickens. Not too hot, not too cold. the pasture is lush from late Summer - early Autumn rain. It's not windy, chickens are calm and they grow and they just keep growing, if you let them. This big guy was about 14 weeks old when we killed him. 

In your conventional shed raised industrial system the chickens are killed around 5 weeks of age. This includes so-called free range. Basically these chickens live in sheds in their own shit. They live with thousands of other chickens and they often have the lights on for up to 20 hours everyday. Lights on means they will eat more, hence grow more quickly and be ready to slaughter at 5 weeks of age. In most pasture raised systems the chickens are killed around 8-9 weeks of age. They don't have lights on at night so only eat during daylight hours which are also spent foraging, nesting, walking, running, flapping ie. using more energy and growing more slowly. We were interested to see what would happen if we let our chickens live longer than nine weeks.  We liked the idea of a longer lived chicken. Better taste, better texture we surmised. But there is so much mythical scare mongering about the Cornish Cross meat chicken that we were nervous - it's a fast growing monster... It can't walk past five weeks of age... It'll die suddenly of a heart attack... It just sits around eating all day...  Regardless we gave it a try and it was as we thought. Better! The meat has more texture and flavour, the leg meat is darker and richer and there's just so much of it that no one misses out. I remember pulling the chicken out of the oven and tearing off a little bit of skin. Oh my! It was transcendental. I dug a little deeper and pulled off a chunk of flesh. I exclaimed out loud, it was just so good. Normally in a collective context one would feel some guilt about hoeing into the chicken before anyone else but when you have 3.5kg of the stuff you can please yourself knowing there is plenty for everyone. This night I felt rich. 

Note - much darker leg meat
We ate well that night and the next day and the next day -  A sensational dinner followed by some pretty spectacular sandwiches for a few days and all culminating in a very lovely bone broth. 

Quality leftovers indeed
Regarding the Cornish Cross disparaging. It is, in the main, related to context. Chickens raised in their thousands in a shed probably don't move very much. Where would they go? And how would they get there? Of course they can't move. Their circadian rhythms are all out of whack from being kept awake most of the night so they probably do have a lot of health problems and are destined for a short life. To a certain extent this is linked to their breed. The reality is that a chicken bred to grow big breasts and fast will lose something in the way of resilience. To a large extent it's about context and it's about good grasses and sunshine. We can easily grow our meat chickens to 21 weeks and beyond because they have ample access to good grasses and sunshine. Their legs and hearts and livers are strong. It may sound simplistic but it's "the truth". Our animal husbandry is almost entirely premised on sun and grass. We aim to let our chicks out of the brooder into the sun and onto the grass for periods of the day by five days of age (weather permitting). Those that get this are noticeably more robust, active and resilient than those that have to remain inside due to cold or overcast or windy or wet weather. 

People ask us why we don't grow more chickens. We could. We have a waiting list of potential customers so the demand is most certainly there. But we can't because it's about the grass, man. The grass needs time to recover. It won't get the time it needs if we have too many chickens walking on it, eating on it and profusely shitting on it. To create and maintain a healthy pasture based system that regenerates the land rather than denudes it requires much keen observation, some restraint and some acceptance of limited profit. This is why chicken is special. 

Chicks being chicks on a sunny day OUTSIDE
I've got another couple of big guys in the freezer - 3.3 and 3.6kg. The 3.6er was a 21 week old rooster we called 'Big Daddy'. I'll probably write about him at a later time as he had a special place in my heart. In the meantime I'm planning how exactly to cook him for my birthday lunch in Spring. 


  1. This is what I love about Australian-style stock farming, rather than the models I've seen in other parts of the world. It's one family on one piece of land, and they have an interest in keeping that land going strong. Animals are grass fed, spend most of their time outdoors and live apparently happy lives, doing what a cow, sheep, or goat is supposed to do.

    I agree, though; the way we raise chickens (and pigs!) here is a disgrace. I'd be thrilled if we could get a small-animal abbatoir working here in the Hunter, like you did down your way. I don't have much space to keep animals, but I'd definitely put my hours in at a place like that, just to keep it going. Someday, when you have less going on, I'll ask you both a lot of questions about how you got that going. One day!

  2. Fantastic post and great blog guys.

  3. What a gorgeous and deliciously succulent post. Like the way you raise your chickens there was so much time, space, love, delight and patience in these beautiful words. Can't wait to hear all about your birthday feast, I have no doubt it will be stunningly amazing, wish I could be there for it. xxxx

  4. We have recently dispatched our roosters. They were about 4 months old and although there isn't a lot of meat on them they were so delicious. I managed to stretch a casserole, pie and broth out of one rooster. We would like to try the meat birds and I'm glad you left them longer as I also heard they don't survive if you grow them longer.

  5. Wow, what a great post. We have a ethical and sustainable beef cattle farm and have started selling direct to our customers in the Hunter Valley. The one thing we have trouble getting people to understand that it isn't an operation that is instant like a supermarket, we need time for the grass to grow, the animals to have a good life.