If, as I was told the other day, much of the frozen chicken and duck meat brought into this country comes from the Far East, it may be that some of us have already been exposed to the risk of contracting avian flu. But I don’t suppose that this will weigh with the government when there is another major scare — a couple of chickens found to have the dreaded virus in a heavily populated part of southern England. With its instinct for over-reaction, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will order that all poultry be kept indoors. When shall we then be able to enjoy a free-range chicken or a free-range egg again?
Not wishing to be a Jeremiah, I would rather describe the joys of eating this remarkable domestic bird. The French like to know what sort of poultry they are getting (such as the famous poulet de Bresse, from Burgundy), but the most important thing is that the bird should be free-range, whether for the quality of its flesh or its eggs. And by free-range I do not mean hundreds of birds kept in a shed with a small ‘pop-hole’, which in effect allows only a tiny proportion of them to venture outside. The birds should be able to range freely on grass all day long and grow naturally; if they are also fed corn, so much the better. The fact that they may be classified as organic, according to the standards of the Soil Association, adds nothing, in my humble opinion, to their flavour, though quite a lot to their price.
When we had a house years ago in southern Spain, a local smallholder would occasionally bring to our door what he called a pollo de campo, which had probably never been indoors in its life. The skin and flesh had a yellowish tinge and were memorably delicious. The French sell an equally good poulet fermier, usually with the feet attached, which are well worth putting in the stockpot. When the meat is this good it is best eaten simply roasted, having been smeared all over with butter and perhaps had garlic and a lemon stuffed into its cavity. (The juice of the lemon can be squeezed over the bird before cooking.)
Proper bread sauce is almost obligatory, made by sticking cloves into a whole onion, soaking it in warmed milk with a bay leaf, then discarding the onion and adding breadcrumbs, butter and grated nutmeg. The usual problems with bread sauce in restaurants and other people’s houses are that it may be stodgy, having been made from a packet and left to congeal, and that there is never enough of it.
There are, of course, endless ways with chicken, many of which incorporate tarragon; and there is no point in pretending that all dishes are improved by paying more than £3 per pound for an organic bird. The flavours in coq au vin — bacon, onions, garlic, mushrooms, thyme and red wine — will lift the blandest of hens. An old boiling fowl is traditionally used for another French classic, poule au pot, made with wine and root vegetables, which Henri IV wanted every family in his kingdom to eat for their Sunday lunch.
A chicken leg grilled on a barbecue, the skin brushed with oil and mustard, is something to look forward to in summer. And no one should underestimate or be ashamed to admit to the pleasure of eating cold chicken with salt and Branston pickle. Chicken livers are another favourite of mine — briefly sautéed in butter and tossed over salad leaves with vinaigrette. Nigel Slater recommends combining sliced garlic, white grapes and cream with the livers.
I know there are some who prefer their chicken gently poached, with a soothing cream sauce, but I find that the stronger flavoured sauces — ravigote, aioli –— are well suited to any bird that is not being roasted. This is certainly the case with guinea fowl, which never seems to me to have the gamey taste which is often claimed for it. In fact, I think this bird, which was brought here from West Africa, is a bit of a disappointment all round. With its insistent caterwauling cry, it is sometimes kept in pheasant woods to warn gamekeepers of the approach of intruders, whether human or vulpine. I once bought three guinea fowl to run with our chickens, in the hope that they would start screeching if a fox was about. The only thing that happened was that they were killed by a fox.
If roasting guinea fowl, it needs a lot of basting, also bacon under the skin, otherwise the meat will be very dry. A friend tells me that, in order to improve the flavour and texture, she pricks the bird and steams it for 20 minutes before roasting. Another option is to brown it in fat, then cook it in the oven with cabbage, onion, bacon, stock and vermouth. Better still, in my view, is a Cornish game hen (also known as Indian game) which has especially good leg meat, rather like the legs of a well-hung turkey.