About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, January 19, 2007
In Pursuit of a Chook
Something in Sam's post about no longer being able to purchase from her preferred chicken supplier really resonated with me. Not that I can't get my favourite chook. On the contrary, it is widely available at specialist shops, not just as whole birds, but selected cuts as well. What piqued my interest in what she wrote was the fact that Sam had a chicken that she was very happy with and had obviously gone through a discovery process to find it.

Twenty-five odd years ago, I started on the path to choosing my own preferred bird. With a foodie mate, we toured through the French and Swiss countrysides looking for food and wine experiences. Even though Francois was Swiss, he exhibited none of the precision and orderliness that the Swiss are renowned for, in fact he was a little disorderly in his habits, nothing really untoward, even a little endearing in a perverse way. But apart from a short stay in Paris, it meant our meanderings were all on a whim and consequently no accommodation was booked, no real drama for we were traveling in January, the height of the low season.

It was a little unsettling for me, liking to have a plan, but I went with the flow and as a consequence we had a number of interesting adventures. There was that seedy hotel in Dijon we went to for accommodation, and when we went to the bar after obtaining rooms, what looked like the biggest bunch of cutthroats since before The Pirates of The Caribbean were in attendance. They looked us up and down with intent and I immediately turned on my heel and went back up to our room to protect our belongings from being stolen.

After half an hour of guard duties, Francois entreated me to come down and have some dinner, he told me everyone was friendly, he was even sharing drinks with them. I don't speak any French, which Francois did fluently having been raised in the French speaking part of Switzerland. He was actually getting on famously with the assorted townsfolk and after I had a glass or two of wine it appeared I was guilty of judging books by their covers. We repaired to the dining room and had one of those simple but delicious dinners, trout with almonds and a bottle of white burgundy, which you dream about finding but rarely do.

Another occasion saw us in the eponymous district of the legendary Bresse chicken. It was here that I was to have my chicken epiphany. It was dark when we drove into Beaurepaire en Bresse; we saw the sign of an Auberge, La Croix Blanche, that had rooms and a restaurant. After booking rooms for the night we headed into the restaurant. There are only two things that I recall from dinner that night - one was my first taste of foie gras in a slice of terrine de foie gras which caused me to order it whenever I saw it on the menu or at any of the town markets we perused. The other was the first taste of Bresse chicken. I really don't remember how it was cooked, what I do remember was the fabulous taste. It was the first time in my life that chicken tasted like meat. The breast had texture and juiciness, it was good and meaty, full of the concentrated essence of chicken. It was in short, a revelation.

The Bresse chicken is the only breed of chicken in the world to be protected by an AOC ( Appellation d'Origine Controlee) which was granted in 1957. This striking white bird with outrageous blue legs is set out to pasture at 35 days old. It must have a minimum of ten square metres to itself and after three weeks is fed only corn and dairy products and whatever it can forage for itself. It spends the last two weeks of its life in a special wooden box called an epinette. This box is completely dark and serves to whiten the flesh of the birds. Slaughter is usually at four months of age and the birds dry plucked.

At this time (1980's), there was nothing like this at all in Australia unless you knew someone raising their own chickens, or were amongst a handful of chefs that could obtain birds that were specially raised just for them. All the general public had was battery raised chicken; because no one knew any different, that is what we uncomplainingly ate. Dry plucking was unheard of and we also liked to give our birds a little chemical dip. It wasn't about optimizing flavour, it was more about what Henry IV in the seventeenth century reputedly wished, that each of his peasants could enjoy a chicken in his pot every Sunday.

It was some time after I had returned home, that I read about a producer of free range chickens called Glenloth Game. They started operations at Wycheproof in Victoria in 1989 and soon became well known for their quality chickens. My first taste brought back memories of that first Bresse chicken. I wouldn't go so far to say it was as good, but it was easily the best Australian raised chicken I'd ever had. But at about double the cost, the peasants weren't exactly lining up for them.

What many probably don't realize is that Glenloth Game buy standard broiler chicken, which they buy in as day olds and grow out under free-range conditions - it is the same breed as any supermarket chicken, which goes to show it's not what you start with that counts, its what you do with it that's important. As Ian Milburn from Glenloth told The Age,

"Really, there's no secret, it's basically a matter of using high-quality feed and allowing the chickens to grow at their natural pace. The antibiotics used by some intensive growers to protect their closely housed birds from disease also make them grow faster."

What they feed the chickens is mostly corn with some peas and wheat for variety plus what the birds can forage, but that doesn't fully account for these chicken's superiority. The other side of the coin is that these birds are free range, which means they are free to walk about in the elements and it is this combination along with a longer maturing time of about two weeks, that is responsible for their great flavour and texture. Imagine that, a chicken that eats a well balanced diet and exercises daily.

I wish Sam well in her search for a new supplier of quality chickens, if it were me, I would be looking for the words free range (outdoors) and high quality feed. I'ts no guarantee, but as a good a starting point as any. The word organic doesn't necessarily confer any better taste and flavour, indeed several months ago I read about a taste test of organic pork where the organic pork didn't fare so well, though in fairness I have had some organic products that were obviously superior to the mainstream. All in all it comes down to the farmer's experience and commitment to his charges and like any field of endeavour, some are better than others.

Glenloth Game chickens are available from Prahran and Queen Victoria Markets as well as Gruner Butcher & Deli and some specialist suppliers.
  posted at 9:30 am

At 9:01 am, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Now, what does exercise and diet have to do with anything! What a revelation! Garbage in, garbage out.
Good ingredients, good food. When will we understand such simplicity.

At 5:45 pm, Blogger plum said...

I'm picky about my chicken but the GG hasn't been a regular I have to admit. Must give it a go now.

At 8:23 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, it's a pretty simple philosophy that works great.

Hi plum, I'm sure you'll like it. I think Gruner is the cheapest, I bought a number 15 for about $15 on the weekend.

At 1:35 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Until today, I have never heard of game chickens, how ignorant of me. They sell some at Prahran you say? I must go hunt some down the next time I go. ;)


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