This is a picture of a dead chicken. Doesn’t look like one from a supermarket, does it? Look at the length of the legs, the colour of the fat, the occasional dark pin feather and the shape of the breasts.
That’s because this one foraged on grass for months, not lived in a shed for weeks. It might have eaten snails or caterpillars. It undoubtedly would’ve tried to eat moths. And the deep golden colour comes not from corn, but from the beta-carotene that it has captured from its forage – the same golden hue that gives the yolks such deep colour in its eggs.
This chicken isn’t one of mine. It’s from my next-door neighbour, a family who rear a few different animals and yet only eat a little meat. Duane is an expert plucker, and he had these dispatched and ready for the pot before I’d had a chance to go over and give him a hand. He breeds buff orpingtons, an old breed that is good for both meat and eggs. And like all those who keep chickens, he ended up with more roosters than anyone could actually want or need. Hence the arrival of this nude looking carcass at the back door – a young rooster who had just started to crow.
I have discovered the real taste of food since I moved to the country. The way things are supposed to taste, and in many cases, the way things don’t really taste if they’re mass produced. When you’ve had your own turkey, your own dry-aged beef, your own lamb or pork, when you’ve tasted the depth of flavour in lettuce grown in the ground not in water, broccoli cut from the plant and eaten within seconds, asparagus snapped from the ground and eaten in the garden, then you’ll know how ingredients should taste.
Mostly, they taste of themselves. But it’s a better self than you knew before. It’s concentrated in flavour. The aromas are far more complex, they linger for longer. The meats are bolder and richer, and you use less of them in your cooking. The vegetables are so satisfying they alone can carry the meal.
Old breed chickens, I’ve found, are currently in vogue. Today I visited a famed southern Tasmanian breeder, Philip Evans (no relation) and his enormous flock. In the 1950s, he tells me, everybody used to use white leghorns for eggs.
Philip reckons the best meat bird is a light sussex. Today the breeds used for eggs and meat are hybrids, fast growing in the case of meat (and with all white feathers) and laying machines in the case of egg birds. For 53 years he’s bred classic varieties (rhode island red and whites, coronation sussex, Indian game birds amongst many others) and he’s stoked to see a revival of interest in them.
My old-breed, recently-deceased chicken will get cooked with garlic grown by a friend down the road. (Ran out of my own garlic a few weeks back.) I’ll wet-roast it with some perry, pear cider, that I made last year. A lemon halved and squeezed is shoved up the cloaca, a lemon from a tree in Cradoc just over the hill. The plan is to serve it with roasted carrots and beets, along with kale and beetroot tops, all from the garden. I’ll have to buy in spuds, though. Ate all mine and there’s no potatoes in the ground right now.
While the cooker’s on, it seems like the perfect time to make apple crumble for pud.