At the end of a French holiday I scouted some Gallic birds at some French markets, seeing about a dozen breeds as well as guinea hens, ducks, turkeys, squab, geese and live quail at a market in the Southwest Bèarn region. The quality, variety and availability are stunning and being able to buy in the marketplace whatever premium ingredients are being served at a restaurant is remarkable. While much of the posh poultry takes showcase real estate during the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve, it is still available all year round and revered birds have not sunk to any pedestrian levels on home or restaurant menus. They fetch high prices that are commiserate with the cost of raising them (slower and longer growth rate), more pampered slaughtering, (elite Bresse birds being plucked by hand on account of the thin skin) and smaller production on pasture. The best of the lot are sewn up in cloth bags (au torchon) to hold an elongated shape.
Fancy schmancy chickens aren’t going to bring world peace or resurrect Elvis, but we spend lots of money to battle the consequences of raising shitty ones (shitty water, shitty land, dead fish) and it is still the cheapest commodity animal that we have. And we each eat about 100lbs of it per year. More than anyone else, but they are catching up down under.
Could you tell the difference between a $4 chicken, an $8/lb chicken and a $15/lb chicken?
In it’s raw state as a whole bird, more than likely. You can kick the tires and tell from the feet if it has bumblefoot (associated with confined animals), breast blisters (Cornish cross birds have trouble lifting their bodies), leg to breast ratio which varies from breed to breed, check the teeth, see if the beak has been cut, whether it was scalded or plucked, air-chilled, if there were too many birds in the tumbler and they broke wings or legs after they were bled, how they took the crop out, the color and size of the legs compared to the breasts, the thickness of the skin and if it was slaughtered with care. Basically you can tell if it lived a life worth living. However, the quality of slaughtering is crucial since a creature can be impeccable the moment it leaves the farm but then gets carelessly hacked at. I am not confident that many people, sadists or otherwise, aspire to work in slaughterhouses and it is part of the trade that demands a deft, if not unflappable hand.
Tendonitis no more, though the bird in the foreground has something ticklish on it's foot which doesn't seem normal
The less processed the better (about 70% meat yield from a whole bird); feet allow for pulling tendons from the drumsticks so they don't shrink back and gelatin for stock with the neck & back; wings, giblets and so on what with some resourcefulness and know how -plenty of which is abundant or ex-tractable on this forum, books or the intertubes.
Yellow chicken from Gâtinais (Gers, north of Paris). 3-4lb, $4.35/lb. Marché Popincourt, Paris 11th.
All cooked in the same manner, probably, though texture has much to do with affecting what we perceive and lump together as “taste”. All this chicken chat ruffled by feathers and I would have been remiss if I left a France trip without tasting any. On my last night last week I had a Poularde de Gâtinais, an old French yellow-skinned breed which, like most birds on the market, benefits from an IGP designation (Protected Geographic Indication) at La Cave de L'Insolite, which at 21€ it was the priciest of a limited post-Christmas menu, but modestly priced at the market. I enjoyed a deboned leg that was seared only on the skin and basted with some duck fat. It was cooked to the cusp of medium well and while one could be excused for calling the American embassy in a panic and Yelping about it, I was indifferent, because it wasn’t an industrial bird and over there the onus on food safety is not on the consumer (Frontline has a documentary about the health liabilities of factory chickens that is sure to get stuck in your craw). It was ever so slightly crimson, the way leg meat should be, exceedingly tender but firm, savory, juicy and reminiscent of guinea hen. They had taken out that unpleasant bit of fat in the thigh and knee cartilage thing and cooked it to order. Cornish Cross legs in comparison are the same color as the breast and taste like bland wet packaging material.
Blue-footed Orléanais (Loire valley).3-4lb, $20 each. Marché d’Aligre, Paris 12th.
Could I tell the difference?
If you know what to look and taste for, hopefully. If it is something entirely new there might not be a benchmark to relate it to. I’m not sure when in time chicken became neutered of all descriptors relating to breed (exceptions for eggs) or style other than the manner in was raised, by whom or how the thing got cooked. While beef has it’s Angus, Hereford, Scottish Highland, Charolais and other pedigrees and the pigs carry fashionable names but they are more novelty than anything since most heritage breeds have died off for very practical reasons (lard breeds like Old Spot Gloucestershire have no real use in the age of refrigeration, non-stick pans and readily available cheap(er) calories). But the hapless chicken is *just* a cheap vehicle for meat.
Chicken from Landes (Gascony, southwest France). 3-4lb, $46 each and blue-footed Bresse Marché Popincourt, Paris 11th.
Could the average Joe, who's never even heard of Poulet Rouge, Don Rockwell, Eric Ziebold, Chowhound or biodynamic, organic, free range, etc tell the difference?
I'm not trying to be jerky, I really don't know.
I *think* it's been proven that there's no difference in taste between the eggs of backyard, free range chickens and an Eastern Shore, bionic but caged-for-life bird's eggs. Does the same go for the meat?
I totally get the difference from a philosophical point of view, but I wonder if I can taste the difference. And I can see why people (normal, everyday people just struggling to get by) are perfectly happy with what they find in the supermarket vs.the home grown chicken/pork/beef etc,at 2X, 3X, 4X the price.
Depends on how much you value or pay attention to food that goes into & out your food holes. And the consequences of eating food which extend far beyond the immediate “taste” but short of blood diamonds. Maybe in the realm of that seafood decoder ring thing with varying colors of shame based on creatures in short supply you were planning on having over for dinner and their habitat you just wrecked. Bravo.
Bresse chicken “en torchon”. (Burgundy) $13/lb Marché Popincourt, Paris 11th.
Eating is more than fattening up on calories out of necessity (or boredom), sustenance and "tasting good", Different foods have pros/cons like virtually everything purchased be they robot vacuum cleaners, cars or electronics which will be obsolete in a year. But food has more of an impact on one’s well-being and while I’ve gladly sacrificed some days for the next by not wearing a helmet the instant I step out of the house, getting starched on too much of brown liquor and the drugs, 2 of those are legitimate non-essential vices stashed in the unfinished catacombs of the food pyramid. Chicken on the other hand serves more of a purpose for keeping your machine ticking… unlessn’ your idea of a Thelma & Louise flavored bender is fixin’ up with Josiah to get yer chin curtains greased in chicken juice and Cheetos while listening to a clandestine ham radio in the turnip cellar.
The food dorks in R&D over at Pepsi Co’s snack lab ($38 billion in sales in 2014) have worked tirelessly to engineer items that taste Grrrrrrrreat! first and foremost and the palate might not be able to taste the additives or notice the nutritional handicaps, environmental consequences, animal welfare, human labor toll at slaughterhouses (disturbingly detailed in Fast Food Nation) and distribution/packaging resources used. If you think of food as fuel for your body, why skimp on something that can cause costly and often painful repairs and will only set you back the cost of 2 movie tickets and popcorn.
Guinea hen from Challans (western Loire) and Bresse chicken $65 each. Marché d’Aligre. Paris 12th.
The overwhelming majority of the broiler chickens you find on the market place are the Cornish cross hybrid broilers. It has been a triumph of genetics for those who like lots of white breast meat, and the scourge of poultry. They are cheap to raise, lean and mostly white meat. Kind of like shitty bread. The birds have been bred to grow very quickly and faster than their bodies can adapt to the weight. Almost 70% have crippling leg problems and videos used to rate gait abnormalities aren’t pleasant to watch, even if it is just a chicken They are lazy, don’t scratch or forage for bugs on pasture, suffer from internal and skeletal issues and pretty much just sit there. There is probably a proverb that correlates the physiology of consumers and such birds via consumption.
Broiler chickens are often billed as "no added hormones", which is true, like that trendy gluten-free grapefruit juice, but growth hormones have been banned in poultry production for over 50 years now, and the slick eager beavers over in marketing just want to remind consumers of how honest the caring the factory farm is. Those chickens are given an equally trendy “vegetarian feed”, even though chickens are most certainly omnivores and those at the bottom of the pecking order get cannibalized dead or alive. “Hormone free” labeling has been ruled as gibberish by the USDA since all living creatures and even chickens have hormones. It’s what gets them laid.
Foie gras and capons from Gers, $72 each. Marché st. Quentin. Paris 10th.
Other older heirloom breeds have their merits, depending on whether they are being raised for meat or eggs, different feed conversions, ease of raising, temperature resistance, growth rate and such. Some USDA inspectors have adverse reactions to seeing birds with feathers leaving a slaughterhouse, but like closer inspection of a wine cork, the feathers also prove breed bonafides and the care taken in plucking them, so some finer producers leave conclusive feathers around the neck and tail.
Capon from Bresse. 2015 Agricultural award winner. Marché st. Quentin. Paris 10th. $30/lb
I think to a lot of people, the story matters, the cost matters, the treatment of the animal matters, and it makes the food taste better and the experience more richer. And, I think that's okay, especially for those with a lot of money.
Perhaps, but this is about an occasional chicken, not yachts, and we aren’t living in post war Stalingrad. I don’t think hobos are lining up at Kinship either. This is the 3rd wealthiest region of the richest country on the planet, by a large margin. And somehow as a nation we spend only 6% of our annual income on food, which is less than half that of Western Europe and other contemporaries and a pittance compared to the rest of the world. And what do we have to show for it other than a population with 30% obesity, 600,000 deaths from heart disease (almost 50% in the African American community) and 10% type 2 diabetes? Of course lifestyle affects health just as much as food, but if the food is intentionally and willfully deficient, then that is a problem that surely affects our prosperity and efficiency as a country, not to mention the other kind of heartache.
Browder’scertified organic Poulet Rouge (French heritage breed). Equally sized legs and breasts. Mattituck, NY. $8/lb.
Top shelf quality and flavor. 125 are slaughtered a week on the farm. Tom Colicchio is a reliable customer and neighbor.
US has managed to devalue and industrialize the majority of its top 3 meat productions. More than 90% of pork is raised indoors, mostly on concrete and while administering growth hormones to pigs (and poultry) has been outlawed in the US for quite some time now, the questionable ractopamine is perfectly legal here, but has not been approved in the EU or China. 75% of all US beef is feedlot raised on concrete and growth hormones are legal, but reassuringly labeled as "all natural" or some other stretched out bullshit, as if CAFOs and the highly industrialized feed is natural. Potato Baron Simplot’s Grandview feedlot in Idaho is the largest in the US with 150,000 head of cattle squeezed into 750 acres, or 200 animals per acre, each with 218 sq/ft of dirt to call home. By law, Bresse chickens -which are much smaller than cattle- must have at least 102 sq/ft per bird.
8 Hands Farm organic Poulet Noir (black footed French Challons breed). Cutchogue, NY. $7.50/lb. Very large and long legs for those who want legs that go up all the way, and small breasts. Top Chef Tom buys with approval as well, and their lamb.
Virtually all meat chickens in the US are raised in confinement. Consumer Reports found that “an analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. That's a modest improvement since January 2007, when we found that eight of 10 broilers harbored those pathogens”.
As for what's out there in stores and restaurants: the liberating, wholesome and groovy sounding Freebird are allegedly “guilt-free” which is terrific, and “free to wander in barns on family farms” just like one is free to roam around at a packed Skynyrd cover band show at the 9:30 club. Tyson, Cargill, Koch Foods and Purdue are also family owned. 3lb birds cost $1.29lb wholesale. That means that after hatching, feeding, slaughtering, processing, packaging and shipping to a wholesale purveyor, $1.29 is enough for everyone to get paid and makes a profit. That’s cheap, and they sell to almost every Whole Foods in the Mid-Atlantic, which is a lot of birds and/or family farms. There is no indication of what breed they raise, but they look very much like Cornish Cross.
Senat Poultry sells Penobscott/Cobb breed birds ($1.89/lb wholesale, 3.5lb average bird) that have a better leg to meat ratio, thicker skin, darker leg meat and are Halal slaughtered which allows them to keep their necks & feet. They are "fed a strict vegetarian diet", like orphans, and are probably scolded too.
Bobo chickens are definitely Cornish Cross and at times are massive, but with the $2.29/lb pricetag you get a whole bird that has only been eviscerated, liver and gizzards included, just like batteries. It is a wonder the birds can walk. I tried to yank tendons from one that looked like it had clubbed feet and all the meat came out. The birds are slaughtered Confucius style which means that are kept intact with the head & feet which requires a religious exemption for the slaughterhouse.
The first 2 claim their growers don't use antibiotics, but when raising that many, their claim is suspect.
Much better is Ayrshire Farms (800 acres) in Upperville has American Bronze, Dominique, Red Caps and a few other breeds which retail for $6-$8/lb for 3-4lb birds. Excellent Scottish Highland grass-fed beef as well. Like many renaissance farmers, Sandy Lerner built a nest egg (co-counder of Cisco Systems) and raises better animals with integrity for the pleasure more than the profit, because she can
All budgets, minds and tastes should be able to enjoy chicken and I am not advocating draconian chicken mandates, but perhaps there should be more and better choices and the nutritional standards raised for the good of the flock rather than filling the pockets of fat cats who benefit from a population that has little other option to wean itself from the cheap chicken.
If Mr. Ziebold and others take pride in doing the calculus and serving what they deem to be a products that meet a tolerable balance of taste and consequences, and there is a demand for it, good for them. No one is under any obligation to split a whole roasted chicken at a finer restaurant between 2 people for a benign dinner no more than they need a Bugatti to get there, but it is nice to spoil oneself and after flying 1st class, coach might as well be a chicken barn.
- DonRocks, Mark Slater, jasonc and 21 others like this