Monday, February 15, 2010

Is All Chicken the Same?

From the country....
On January 24 2010, I attended the Slow Food Chicken Tasting at Victor Restaurant in T.O. The highlight of the night was getting to taste chickens that I had raised and comparing this breed with 4 other heritage breeds. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The dominant question was: Does all chicken taste the same? Chicken has received such a bad rap for quite some time now and the fact that most people can only get the factory raised, genetically mutated, tasteless, watered down, anaemic chicken wrapped in cellophane, gleaming under the fluorescents at the grocery store, the idea of tasting different varieties of poultry was refreshing. But I didn’t know whether other people would think this way. Chicken just doesn’t have the same appeal as beef, pork, even lamb. Chicken is just chicken is just chicken. Chicken is just that blank protein that needs to be adulterated to make it taste like something; you might as well eat tofu (no offence soy industry!). Who knew there are different chicken varieties? Are there taste benefits to eating heritage chicken?

Of course I knew these answers, I have been raising chickens first hand for some time now. But I am the minority and most people do not raise meat for their table. We eat a lot of chicken here on the farm, and I often feel guilty that we have these beautiful chicken dinners were one day the chicken is on pasture and the next on the tip of our fork. Chicken can be flavourful, sweet, delicate meat and it is a shame that not everyone has truly tasted it. I wondered whether anyone really cared about chicken and as I looked around the restaurant last night, I was so pleasantly surprised that people do in fact still have faith in chicken! They really do!! I clucked all night like a hen in a dust bath!

The tasting was put on by Slow Food Toronto and led by Carrie Oliver from the Oliver Ranch Company with commentary by my partner, Mark Trealout from Kawartha Ecological Growers on the various breeds of chicken and how they were raised. He stepped lightly around the topic of chicken policy and the bleak view of poultry in Ontario and instead let the night be all about the celebration of chicken. We tasted 4 breeds of chicken Americauna (from our farm), Barred Plymouth Rock, Jersey Giant, and Buff Orpington. All these breeds were raised here in the Kawartha Lakes and all by our grower group. We all practice sustainable and ecological growing and is the same with animal husbandry. These chickens were raised with complete access to pasture and fed a local non-GMO feed supplemented with produce seconds, sprouted grains etc. These four chicken breeds fall under the category of heritage chickens.

A brief description of a heritage chicken is that a breed must be recognized by the American Poultry Association, must be able to mate naturally, must have the genetic ability to live a long life thriving in a pasture based outdoor setting, hens should be productive for 5-7 years and roosters 3-5 years and must have a moderate to slow growth rate reaching market weight no less than 16 weeks of age. This gives the bird more time to develop naturally and develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs before building muscle mass. When a chicken is allowed to grow slowly the result is simple: healthy and super tasty chicken. Let’s compare this description with the standard chicken breed most readily available. The standard chicken (the White Rock) is ready for market in a hasty 8 weeks and cannot mate naturally. The White Rock chicken is rarely raised outdoors and is so genetic weak that is very susceptible to disease, heart issues, leg issues (the list goes on.), it feels like we are eating chicken that belongs in a fictitious poultry hospital, not our bellies…. There are some reputable growers raising these White Rock chickens in a more pastoral setting with quality feed and real sunshine but the fact is this chicken just doesn’t know how act like a chicken. I have raised these chickens in the past and I am sworn off these white mutations, for the fact that they just do readily take to pasture. You can lead a chicken to pasture but can you make it graze?

Now that I have bashed these chickens, let me tell you what they are excellent for. Poussin. Poussin is a French word for small chicken (ideally just under two pounds dressed). The White Rock lends itself beautifully to this, a young, tender bird that melts in your mouth. Consider this the ethical veal of the poultry world raised only 4-5 weeks of age on non-GMO grain and pasture. We enjoy the odd poussin available from our grower group (Kawartha Ecological Growers).
Back to the tasting, the birds were prepared 4 different ways by the super talented David Chrystian from Victor Restaurant, Donna Dooher from Mildred’s Temple Kitchen and Marc Dufour from The Wine Bar. The first preparations a simple roast chicken seasoned with salt, followed by pan seared, braised and a shot of broth to finish (let’s not forget the appetizers chicken liver pate on crustinis and chicken wings!) Each plate had 2 pieces of meat (white and dark), with all breeds represented on each plate. I was astounded by the textural and taste difference between the breeds.

The Americauna rooster is a smaller bird with wild colour variation in their feathers depending on variety. These particular birds were red and black with an iridescent gleam, a smaller comb and a black beard. The Americauna was probably the smallest of all the birds and the most difficult to prepare (according to the chefs..). They have a smaller frame with little breast meat. In the roast category it had a nice bite but not an ideal bird for roasting. Where the Americauna stood out was in the pan seared and broth categories. I tasted hints of onion and an over all sweet flavour. The Barred Plymouth Rock (a large majestic bird with a large red comb and a plume of black and white) and Jersey Giant (a large black rooster from New Jersey circa 1920) were my least favourites. Their tastes and textures were very bold. The meat on these birds was earthy with tastes of mineral and blood. The texture of the meat was firm and dense with a little more chew then the other breeds. This is not to say that I didn’t like these breeds on the flavour front, I would just cook them at home differently, more slowly cooked. That is were these breeds stood out, when they were treated more slowly and braised. Lastly, the Buff Orpington a large framed bird with feathers of a soft golden colour, which mirrors their docile disposition. This was my favourite for a roast bird. The texture of the meat was like silky butter and melted in your mouth. It basted itself nicely with its own fat (which this bird had lots of!) and was the picture of a Sunday evening roast chicken. The taste was sweet with hints of corn and buttery deliciousness! When pan seared the flavour was reminiscent of fried chicken and the bones lent themselves nicely to the broth portion of the tasting.

All in all, the evening was an eye opener, even for us farmers! The taste and texture variant between the breeds was astounding. In the end each breed had it’s own flavour and it’s own strengths. Everyone at the tasting had his or her own favourite breed and no breed outshone any other. The trick for the home cook is to know how to prepare these birds. My suggestion for this is to meet a farmer (at the market or otherwise) and ask them how to prepare their particular breed and when in doubt braising is a nice way to prepare your bird. I strongly recommend trying these heritage breeds (although hard to find) and having a taste test of your own. We need to re educate ourselves in what real chicken tastes like. Poultry that has had time to ripen, that has been bathed in the sun and gorged on pasture. Real chicken is out there it just needs support. By creating a demand for these breeds, it allows farmers to catch a glimpse of the past when there was more than one breed available and when chicken tasted a hell of a lot more like chicken.

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