Beowulf’s Feast: The Broth, the Bread and the Spit-Roasted Chicken

Recipes offer a tangible glimpse of the past and bring history books alive, inspiring the imagination to go beyond the dry details of facts and lists of dates. Eating is both a necessity and a cultural practice. It is a natural daily activity that enmeshes a person in their own time and place. If the unfamiliar foods of a foreign country in today’s world can stimulate feelings of displacement, how much more powerful is this experience when transposed across time? Food brings us vividly face-to-face with people from long ago and recreates them for us as complex characters with the full range of human emotions and needs.

When L told me that they were ‘doing’ the Anglo Saxons at school, I struggled to dredge up any relevant information about the period from my own history lessons. I could tell you a fair amount about what the Romans did for us and I knew who won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but the bit in between was slightly foggy to say the least. Weren’t there some Vikings around at some point too? How did they fit into the grand parade of marauding conquerors?

Wikipedia attempts to clarify:

Anglo-Saxon England refers to the period of the history of England that lasts from the end of Roman Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th century until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 … Facing the threat of Viking invasions, the House of Wessex became dominant during the 9th century, under the rule of Alfred the Great. During the 10th century, the individual kingdoms unified under the rule of Wessex into the Kingdom of England, which stood opposed to the Danelaw, the Viking kingdoms established from the 9th century in the North of England and the East Midlands. The entire kingdom of England fell to Danish invasion in 1013, and was ruled by the House of Denmark until 1042, when the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex was restored until 1066, when the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, fell at the Battle of Hastings

Did you get that? Did you feel any tingling thrill of empathy with centuries-old travellers, any frisson of familiarity with a human thirst for life? Did you recognize yourself in that encyclopaedic entry?

Contrast this with the seafarer poet who told of his feet fettered by cold, bound by frost in cold clasps. Cares seethed hot about his heart and hunger tore from within his sea-weary soul as he imagined hearing the laughter of men and the drinking of mead in the sounds of the curlew and the singing gull. His spirit twisted out of his breast and soared out in the waterways, over the whale’s path and through all the corners of the world in search of heaven.

Such depictions of endurance, suffering, loneliness and spiritual yearning make it easy to imagine that this elegy was written only yesterday, but it wasn’t. It was written more than a thousand years ago in Old English and survives in hand-copied form in the 11th-century Exeter Book. Poetry such as this shows us that history can still be very much alive today, resonant with the reality of human existence.

With half-term upon us and O absent in Cambridge, I decided to involve my children in a little ‘living history’ project of our own. “Let’s have an Anglo-Saxon feast for dinner tonight,” I declared.

“I want fish fingers and chips,” T told me. He’s only 3, so I guess history’s a bit of a tricky concept for him. L thought the idea was okay and M wanted to know if it was the same as having a party, in which case it would be fine with her too.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realise then that there are very few, if any, authentic Saxon recipes around today. This isn’t because food was unimportant to the Anglo-Saxons – descriptions of feasts in Beowulf reveal the importance of feasting as a social display of wealth and prosperity. In a time of famine and frequent invasion, the ability to present an abundance of food to guests must have been a true sign of a person’s hospitality and good farming fortune.

If I can dare to offer an opinion on why there is such a lack of extant records of how food was prepared (which is either pretty brave of me or pretty foolish, given that I barely knew anything at all about the Anglo-Saxons a few days ago), I would suggest that it is because their food was local and cooked simply. Recipes just weren’t necessary.

In this Saxon-style version of Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers, no-one would have thought to write down a procedure for cooking. There were few established trade routes and spices were expensive. Ingredients would therefore be familiar and their preparation commonplace. I think this apparent simplicity in Anglo-Saxon cookery is behind the following exchange between the teacher and the cook in Aelfric’s Colloquy:

Teacher: What can we say about you, cook? Do we have need of any of your skills?

Cook: If you drive me away from your community you would eat your vegetables raw and your meat rare; and, moreover, without my skill, you would be unable to have good rich broth.

Teacher: We do not care about your skill, it is of no importance to us, since we can cook what needs to be cooked and eat what needs to be eaten.

To recreate an Anglo-Saxon dish therefore, we needed to find out more about the foods that were available among the local resources at that time. L was keen to tell me about Anglo-Saxon farming methods and gave me an animated account of how there were “loads of boggy fields and they didn’t want one person to get the only good field, cos that wouldn’t be fair, so they gave everyone a bit of the good field in a strip” (fairness is important to 8-year-olds). We then discovered a goldmine of accumulated knowledge from a re-enactment society and an attractive presentation of this same material for children on food and drink in Anglo-Saxon life.

Beans, peas, onions, white carrots, cabbage and leeks were cultivated, and wild foods such as garlic, nuts and herbs were collected. Common crops included wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. Grains would be ground into flour to make bread, the only staple source of starch in Anglo-Saxon diets. Sheep, cows, goats, pigs and chicken were raised on farms for meat and other foods, while hunters supplemented the table with deer, wild boar, hares and a variety of wild birds. Streams and rivers provided fish such as eels, pike, minnow, trout and sprats. Sea-fishermen caught herring, salmon, oysters, mussels, plaice, flatfish, lobsters and so on, but these delicacies were unavailable to anyone living too far inland. Butter and cheese were produced in dairies, and both the coastal and inland extraction of salt allowed these and other commodities to be seasoned and preserved. Apples, pears, peaches and wild summer berries were gathered from the trees and bushes.

We noted several important foodstuffs that were either entirely unavailable or largely unused in Anglo-Saxon cooking (apart from the obvious things that is, like Coco-Pops and Findus Crispy Pancakes). Sugar didn’t arrive in England until the Crusades in the 12th century, so honey was used as the major form of sweetener. Despite Mary Savelli’s best claims in her book on the Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England, tea was neither available at that time nor a common ingredient of mead. Pepper and other spices were prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy, while wheat also was used in limited amounts by common people due to its cost. And potatoes – yes, O’s favourite form of starch wasn’t brought to England until the 1580s. Turkeys, tomatoes and apricots also weren’t introduced until the 16th century.

I had more difficulty in tracking down information on cooking oil. It seems that the Romans brought olive oil over with them, but I’m not sure if they left it here when they went. Vegetable oil is referenced by Stephen Pollington in The mead hall: the feasting tradition in Anglo-Saxon England when he describes “a richer form of bread [that] could be obtained by adding egg, milk, cream or vegetable oil to the mixture,” but I can’t find anything to corroborate this. Without wanting to deviate too far from authenticity but unwilling to render our own lard for the experiment, we decided that using vegetable oil would be acceptable for us.

It was interesting to discover that the Anglo-Saxons did leave us a form of recipe in their prescriptions for medicines. Although I doubted that my children would appreciate receiving an Anglo-Saxon cure for their dinner (unless it tasted like Calpol, that is), the various charms and concoctions described in leechbooks of the time suggest that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with and used a wider range of herbs in their cooking than we do today:

“If anyone has the water-elf disease, then his nails will be wan and his eyes will water and he will wish to look down. Give him this medicine: carline thistle, hassock, the lower part of iris, yewberry, lupine, elecampne, marshmallow head, fen-mint, dill, lily, cock’s-spur grass, pennyroyal, horehound, dock, elder, earthgall, wormwood, strawberry leaves, comfrey; mix with ale, add holy water to it, then sing this charm three times” …

… or, as it was written in Old English:

Gif mon biþ on wæterælfadle, þonne beoþ him þa hand-
næglas wonne and þa eagan tearige and wile locian niþer.
Do him þis to læcedome: eoforþrote, cassuc, fone nioþo-
weard, eowberge, elehtre, eolone, merscmealwan crop,
fenminte, dile, lilie, attorlaþe, polleie, marubie, docce, ellen,
felterre, wermod, streawbergean leaf, consolde; ofgeot mid
fealaþ, do hæligwæter to, sing þis gealdor ofer þriwa …
Listen to this being read.

We soon discovered that bread was of central importance to the Anglo-Saxons, not only as food but also as a payment for rent and a marker of social hierarchy. This is reflected in the Old English vocabulary of the time. The word for a ‘loaf’ (hlaf) is found in the word for ‘lord’ (hlaford), itself derived from the term hlaf-weard, or ‘bread-guardian’. Just as we talk about the ‘bread-winner’ of a family today, the Old English term denoted the fact that the lord was responsible for providing food for his people. Accordingly, a retainer of the lord was called a hlafæta, or bread-eater. The lord’s wife, on the other hand, was known as the hlæfdige, or ‘bread-maker’. The modern term ‘lady’ is derived from this word.

As the only form of starch, bread was an essential part of every Anglo-Saxon meal. Made from mixed wholegrain flours ground from wheat, barley, rye, oats, beans and even peas, loaves could be leavened with beer balm or sourdough. Bread was eaten with fresh cheese or used to scoop up accompaniments such as briw, or broth. As the baker said in Aelfric’s Colloquy:

Teacher: What do you say, baker, how does your skill benefit us, or can we lead our live without it?

Baker: You can live for some time without my craft, but you cannot live well for a long time without it. For without my craft the whole table would appear bare, and without bread all your food would become vomit.


So, how could we turn this list of ingredients into a possible period-like dish? Evidence from archaeological sites and contemporary illustrations shows that Anglo-Saxons used large cooking pots or cauldrons suspended over fires either inside or outside the home. These would be most useful for boiling and stewing meat and vegatables, which is consistent with references to soups, stews, pottages and broths in Anglo-Saxon literature. Cooking in this way would have been both practical and economical – pots could be left to simmer over the course of a day while other jobs were attended to, with the added bonus of preserving nutritional juices and wasting little material in the cooking process.

Small iron skillets and griddles suggest that flat breads and omelettes may have been prepared indoors, while large, enclosed clay ovens show that bread was also baked outside. Meat was often boiled in a bag in the cauldron along with the vegetables, but could also be spit-roasted or grilled for special occasions. Sometimes no pots or utensils at all were used and food was cooked outside in an earthen pit lined with hot stones. This method of cooking gives us an interesting linguistic connection between the Old English word for ‘pit’ (seaþ) and our own term for being in a state of boiling-like agitation, ‘seethe’ (this makes more sense if you know that the funny-looking p sort of letter in Old English writing is pronouned ‘th’).

For our own feast, we decided to prepare a broth of leeks, beans, peas and barley in the closest thing we have to a cauldron and hearth fire (aka a red Le Creuset pot and an induction cooker zone). Each one of my three children wanted to make their own batch of bread buns using different flours from each other so that they could compare the tastes of the various wholegrains. Whilst pork or beef would perhaps have featured more regularly on an Anglo-Saxon table, M was adamant that she wanted chicken. Not having a handy spit tucked away in the corner of the kitchen, we did the next best thing and spiked chicken pieces onto barbeque skewers.

The bread was an enormous success. Everyone enjoyed being ‘in charge’ of their own batch of dough and M ate three of her own spelt-flour bread buns in one go while they were still warm and fresh from the oven. The broth was hearty and delicious (and provided nutritious leftovers for the next day). I think we all felt most Anglo-Saxon when eating the sticky, garlicky chicken with our fingers (although the Anglo-Saxons used spoons and knives, they didn’t appear to see a need for inventing forks as cutlery). With much quaffing of ginger ale, fervent singing and dramatic story-telling, we certainly felt a little closer to our ancient ancestors!

Anglo Saxon Broth with Bread and Spit-Roasted Chicken


1 lb wholegrain flour (eg. Doves Farm Malthouse bread flour or Sharpham Park wholegrain spelt flour, singly or in combination)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp quick yeast
1 tsp honey
300 ml water
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a large mixing bowl.

Add the honey and vegetable oil to the water, then stir into the dry ingredients (add more or less water as required – the dough should be tacky but not so sticky that you can’t get it off your hands easily).

Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and stretchy.

Shape into a ball, place in an oiled bowl, cover with cligfilm (or a damp cloth if you haven’t any authentic Anglo-Saxon clingfilm to hand 😉 ) and leave to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Divide into five or six pieces (approx. 5 oz each or 4 oz each piece) and shape into buns. Place on a baking tray, cover and leave to rise for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

When risen, bake the buns in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove and cover with a clean, dry cloth to keep the crusts soft.


4 1/2 oz pearl barley
500 ml ale
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 lb trimmed leeks, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 carrots, diced
4 oz green beans, sliced
1 1/4 pints water
2 bay leaves
handful fresh mint leaves (1/4 oz)
12 oz frozen peas
1 tsp honey
2 1/2 oz bulgar wheat
salt, to taste

Put the barley and ale in a medium-sized saucepan, bring to the boil then cover and simmer gently until the barley is soft, c. 50 mins to 1 hour.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan (this is your cauldron). Add the onion, leeks, garlic and carrot. Cook gently until softened.

Stir in the beans and water. Simmer gently until the beans are softened.

Add the bay leaves, mint, peas and honey to the cauldron. Simmer gently for a further 5 minutes.

Stir in the softened barley and ale.

Just before serving, stir in the bulgar wheat. Leave to stand for a couple of minutes, then stir. Check seasoning and add salt if necessary.

Spit-Roasted Chicken

4 tbsp vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp honey
6 chicken thigh fillets, diced

Mix together the oil, garlic and honey in a medium-sized bowl or measuring jug. Leave to stand for 15 minutes to infuse the flavours.

Add the chicken thigh pieces and stir to cover evenly with the infused oil. Marinade for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Thread the chicken pieces onto barbeque skewers and suspend across a baking tray. Drizzle over any remaining oil or garlic.

Cook in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is fully cooked.

To serve: Place the bread on a wooden board in the centre of the table. Remove the chicken pieces from the skewers and place in a large serving bowl on the table. Serve the broth in individual bowls (wooden, if possible) with spoons. Each person should help themselves to the bread and chicken, eating them with their hands and using the bread to scoop up copious amounts of the good rich broth.

Italian-style Chicken Casserole

A few days after I posted a round-up of recipes that had been submitted to my Let Them Eat Chicken food-blogging event in July last year, I received an email from my sister. Admittedly a little late, she sent me her own chicken recipe in the hope that I would add it to my collection. I promised to do so … I really, truly meant to do so … it’s just that I’m a little late, too!

To make up for my negligence, I decided that the honourable thing to do would be to make my sister’s recipe for dinner one evening on my new range cooker. Perhaps she would think I’d been waiting all this time until our kitchen was finished so I could showcase her recipe in appropriate splendour …

Hmm, maybe not. My sister knows me too well 😉 . Sorry, Lucy – I just forgot. Can you forgive me?

I have to say, it’s my own loss for having overlooked my sister’s recipe before now. O and I enjoyed a scrumptious chicken dinner a couple of evenings ago – a sort of coq au vin with an Italian twist. We ate ours with a pile of creamy mashed potato, although Lucy says it’s also good served with basmati rice.

You may remember that my sister once presented me with some cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market? Well, when she has time, she likes to buy her chicken from a no less prestigious source nearby – Wyndham House Poultry (how I envy my sister’s shopping habits!). She says she discovered these butchers in a lovely book called Food Lovers’ London (she often refers to this book in her emails to me – I’ve got my fingers crossed that she might take me on a tour around its pages one day 😉 ).

Living slightly too far away from Borough Market for a quick shopping dash in between the school runs, I chose to use thighs from Devonshire Red chickens that I bought in my local Sainsbury’s.

devonshire red

The Devonshire Red is a slow-growing breed reared free from the worst practices of intensive farming. The chickens’ higher welfare standards are assured by the RSPCA’s Freedom Food accreditation.

So, here it is – my sister’s chicken casserole … ta daaaaa!

chicken casserole

Italian-style Chicken Casserole

Serves 4

1kg free range chicken thighs and drumsticks
1 red onion, sliced
250ml red wine
1 tin of tomatoes
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 x 410g can cannellini beans, drained
1 x 450g jar roasted red peppers, drained and sliced (note: I roasted some red peppers myself to save a bit of money here)
2 sprigs rosemary, chopped

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/ fan 160 degrees C. In a large oven proof casserole dish, sear the chicken for 5 to 6 minutes until brown. Transfer to a plate.

Add the onions to the casserole dish and cook for 3 to 4 minutes stirring until softened. Pour over the red wine and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken.

Add the paprika, tomatoes, beans, peppers and rosemary. Put the chicken back in to the casserole dish too. Bring to the boil and cover.

Cook in the oven for 30 minutes until the chicken is tender and the juices run clear.

Let Them Eat Chicken: The Round-Up

What better way to celebrate my birthday than by posting this round-up of entries to Let Them Eat Chicken? It has been wonderful to see the enthusiastic responses arriving in my mailbox. Chicken welfare is very clearly high on the agenda for many of us.

A huge thank you to everyone who took part in this event to raise awareness of conditions in the broiler chicken industry. Without further preamble (apart from to say that I’ll make it prettier with photos later – family are arriving now to celebrate my birthday 😉 ), here then are your favourite chicken recipes (ordered loosely according to date of entry):

Marie from A Year To Oak Cottage posted the very first entry in which she shared this tasty recipe for Chicken with Parsley and Capers. Marie describes how she and her husband made a decision last year to eat only free-range and organic meat, even although it means they eat meat less often now. However, this has allowed them to “eat with a conscience”.

David Hall, a BBC MasterChef finalist and food writer, buys Northumbrian free-range chickens from his local butcher, Gordons in South Tyneside. They are “utterly delicious and simply no substitute for the fatty, poor tasteless intensively reared birds that everybody buys from the local HUGE Asda!” Here’s the recipe he sent me for Moroccan Stuffed Chicken with Roasted Fennel.

Carol Wilson is a food writer and Jury member for the Slow Food Awards. She wrote to me about the “Fowl Play” of intensive chicken rearing and contributed a delicious recipe for Chicken Satay.

Rona Amiss from Higher Fingle Farm offered her children’s favourite recipe for chicken sticks. She recommends sourcing chicken reared to high standards from local producers for a less expensive option than buying organic meat in the supermarkets.

Fiona Bird from Stirrin’ Stuff works in partnership with schools and nurseries across the UK to educate children and young people about food. You might have seen her demonstrating this recipe for Poached Chicken and Couscous Salad at the Royal Highland Show earlier this year! Fiona devised this recipe for the Co-operative to showcase the higher-welfare Elmwood chicken standards that are now the minimum requirements for all their fresh chicken. She says that poaching “really is child’s play and keeps the chicken moist as well as being a quick and healthy method of cooking.”

Sarah Hartley reflects on the Chicken Out campaign on her blog of ‘Life Through Food’ at the Manchester Evening News. She offers a scrumptious recipe from a friend for Sharon’s Chicken Enchilada Pie. A tasty way to use up any chicken leftovers, this pie is ideal for serving to groups of hungry party guests.

Fiona Beckett of The Frugal Cook describes an intriguing procedure for a barbeque show stopper she calls Beer-Can Chicken. You might need a sous-chef to help with this in the final stages, but Fiona believes it’s “the best chicken recipe of all”.

Joelen of Joelen’s Culinary Adventures agrees and gives us a variation on Beer-Can Chicken from across the the Atlantic. She emailed me to say, “the free range chicken I used for this recipe is from Trader Joes and it was incredibly moist and flavorful.”

If you’re looking for something that uses chicken stock and thighs, Anna’s Avgolemono is the perfect treat at Morsels and Musings. This flavoursome Greek chicken and lemon soup can be served as either a starter or a main course.

As a contributing editor to Living Earth, Elisabeth Winkler from Real Food Lover wants her food to be grown “without chemicals and with respect.” She gives some valuable advice on how to eat organic chicken on a budget and includes a recipe for Roast Organic Chicken from Sheepdrove Farm, Half Price!

Jamie Oliver sends his wishes for the best of luck and provides tasty ideas for using up a whole chicken, including poaching, salads and chicken broth.

Henrietta Green and the team from Food Lovers Britain supported this event by posting a delicate summer chicken recipe in their newsletter, Food Scoop. Although it may sound strange, the accompanying lettuce sauce is perfect for using bolted lettuce.

Alex, undoubtedly the Princess of The Princess and the Recipe, uses free-range chicken breasts from Tesco* to make a wonderful Thai Green Chicken and Mango Curry with Spiced Cauliflower. She always buys free-range chicken and believes “it really does pay off in terms of taste and texture”.

An incredible Sticky Lemon Chicken from the Antics of a Cycling Cook is “simple to prepare and tastes great.” Sam is passionate about this event and urges everyone to think carefully before buying their next chicken.

Leemei from My Cooking Hut hits home about taking responsibility for choice when allocating your shopping budget in a post on Free-Range Chicken. With beautiful photos, she describes how she uses a Label Rouge chicken from France to create a late Sunday lunch of Maple Roast Chicken.

Cakelaw from Laws of the Kitchen selects a scrumptious recipe for Spanish Roast Chicken to bring awareness to the plight of broiler hens. She roasts a free-range, “lovely, plump large bird” from Prahran Market in Melbourne on a bed of lemon and chorizo flavoured potatoes – superb!

For an easy meal that looks like a lot of effort but is heavenly, try Leigh’s Easy Moroccan Chicken with Sweet Potato and Garlic Mash from The Good Stuff. He also offers a beer match. As he says, without our independent food and drink producers, “we’d be in a really depressing state”.

Despite struggling against software problems, Kadeeae from Consuming the Harvest secured her entry by emailing me her recipe for Creamy Chicken Tagliatelle. She uses free-range chicken thighs from Tesco* and serves her dish with garlic bread and salad.

A Sceptical Cook, author and food-columnist for the New Statesman, Nicholas Clee bravely shows us how to achieve a spatchcocked chicken for laying flat on the barbeque. His chicken is a Label Anglais, a special slow-growing breed that thrives in free-range pastures.

Ning from Heart and Hearth writes movingly about the difficulty she faces in sourcing a free-range or “native” chicken in her home-town of Manila in the Philippines. She offers a cherished, nourishing soup made originally for the family by her grandmother that uses four Chinese herbs to comfort and nourish the body.

Mallika posted an entertaining account of an encounter with thighs in A Thigh For Your Conscience at Quick Indian Cooking. She was very serious about her recipe for chicken curry however, and used an organic chicken from Waitrose that “rocked” and was served with “a content smile”.

Mark, who specialises in growing Mediterranean crops and forgotten fruits at Otter Farm, has been extremely helpful and supportive of this event. He searched for a recipe but confessed that, “to be honest there’s not much else I like to do with a chicken than roast it with herbs and butter pushed under the skin and eat as much of it as I can!” That sounds more than good enough to me!

Elaine from A Series of Kitchen Experiments uses grain-fed chicken drumsticks from the farmers’ market in March Atwater to cook a spectacular Ayam Masak Merah Madu, or Honeyed Red Chicken. She finds that the taste is excellent in comparison to that of cheaper, supermarket chicken – more tender and sweet.

For a worrying moment, I thought I might be at risk of missing my own event! But I managed to fit in a post between the school-runs and the nappy-changing offering my own recipe for Garlic Chicken Kiev.

At Feast With Bron, an expensive, Old Fashioned chicken is transformed into an economical purchase. Bron was inspired to cook with devotion to match the care she knew had been taken in the rearing of this bird. Her final meal provided this recipe for Chicken and Tarragon Soup.

Kitty from Boring History Girl offers a special-occasion recipe for Roast Chicken Spaghetti – a true birthday treat! She invites comments on her opinion that “basic, nutritional, sustainable food cooked into simple to prepare meals is within reach of all but most unlucky of western society.”

Nick from The Tracing Paper works for East Anglia Food Link to increase the availability of local and sustainable food. He takes us on an investigation to decode the origins of the chicken he buys in Where’s That Chicken From? and concludes with an illustrated guide to jointing and a recipe for chicken tagine.

Let me wish a Happy Birthday also to Jules, a Domestic Goddess in Training! She uses a tasty, succulent chicken “that doesn’t leach water when you cook it” to rustle up this fantastic Coconut Chicken Masala.

And finally, Derek Armstrong contributed a last-minute entry for Coq à la Pêche – something that certainly sounds simple but different!

… but wait, that’s not quite all! Warren Murray has squeezed in an extra entry this morning over at Word of Mouth. He questions readers’ shopping habits and casts a vote for the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards in Chicken Check-Up. He gives not one but several recipe suggestions for ensuring that the chicken’s better-than-average life didn’t go to waste.


Joining the after-dinner party is Jeanne from Cook Sister! Lamenting the drizzly summer, she nevertheless offers a sizzling barbeque recipe for Smoked Chicken with a Curried Stuffing with leftovers that lasted at least 6 delicious adult meals. As she says, “show me the battery bird that can do that!”

Meeta from What’s For Lunch, Honey? has returned from her vacation with promises of a wonderful, creamy Indian chicken dish. Meeta’s process of cooking with care, thought and love starts from the moment she considers which products will be on her shopping list.

*When Tesco raise their minimum welfare standards, I’ll add a link to their website 😉 .

The Chicken of Tomorrow

In 1951, 45 contestants from 25 states converged on the University of Arkansas for the national Chicken-of-Tomorrow finals. These were the culmination of a program throughout the 1940s to encourage “the development of superior meat-type chickens … a broad-breasted bird with bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs and layers of white meat” (as the narrator, Lowell Thomas proclaims in this 1948 documentary of the contests).

Chicken Head

The Chicken-of-Tomorrow contests were sponsored by America’s dominant grocery retailer at that time, the Atlantic and Pacific (A&P) Company. A collection of 1951 contest papers includes advertising materials, brochures and promotional souvenirs from suppliers of feed, drugs, stock and equipment for poultry growers. Chicken meat was indeed big business. And bigger chickens meant bigger profits.

An article from 1951 in the World’s Poultry Science Journal describes the significant effect the breeding contests were having on the economy:

In 1948 broilers contributed over $18,000,000 in gross profits to the poultry industry in North Carolina … Last year there was a difference of 0.7 pound in weight between the highest and lowest rating strains whose body weight was taken at 12 weeks of age. These strains had been taken from the same hatches, fed the same feed, and managed in the same manner. On the basis of 1,000 broilers, a farmer who selected the highest rating strain by weight for broiler production, would have 700 more pounds of meat to market at 12 weeks of age than if he had chosen the lowest rating strain. (Vol. 7 Issue 02)

Bigger certainly appeared to be better, not only for producers but also for consumers. Selective breeding with an emphasis on growth rate, feed efficiency and amount of breast and thigh meat maintained a steady supply of inexpensive poultry products for the nation’s booming supermarket industry.

Fast-forward fifty years and yesterday’s chicken-of-tomorrow is our chicken tonight. Intensive genetic selection has created a bird type that has little in common with earlier generations of broilers. Studies of the metabolism of these chickens suggest that such high demands on their energy resources for growth seriously compromise the resources they are able to direct towards other processes like fighting disease. An increased need for oxygen to support their rapid development leaves them prone to heart failure and ‘waterbelly’, or ascites. The impact that the gross weight of these chickens has on their ability to walk is recognised as a primary concern in broiler welfare. Additionally, these birds may be faster-growing but this means that they are also fattier than the chickens of yesterday – between 13-18% of the body weight of a commercial broiler chicken is ether-extractable fat.

The inevitable conclusion is that these man-made, fast-growing broilers are genetically, physically and physiologically different from slow-growing strains of chicken.

What happens when these man-made birds are reared intensively in farming sheds? Here, the chickens are kept on litter in direct contact with their droppings and are stocked at a density that provides little room for movement. As they grow, the environmental conditions in the shed tend towards becoming warm, wet and under-ventilated unless they are adequately monitored and regulated. The chickens’ feed is normally processed to make it easier for the digestive enzymes to access the nutrients (heat-processing is often used, which also gelatinizes part of the starch and promotes feed conversion efficiency – note the links to kate flour!). However, heat-processing of feed pellets increases the chances of wet litter … so enzymes are combined with the feed to control wet droppings.

These factors all combine to create a ripe breeding ground for the development of coccidiosis, one of the most important diseases among poultry. Although coccidiosis is common among all bird populations, the Food Standards Agency reports that intensive farming methods make the routine treatment of poultry with veterinary drugs “indispensable”. In the UK, intensively-reared chickens are therefore given a coccidiostat feed additive from placement up to around 28 days of age. The only approved drug for this is Nicarbazin, currently available in the form of the feed additive, Maxiban. It is interesting to note that the same drug is also registered as an oral contraceptive in Canada geese!

This doesn’t come without risks. The producers of Maxiban, Elano Animal Health, provide a material safety data sheet for the product, which states:

Maxiban Premix contains narasin and nicarbazin, may cause burns or permanent tissue damage to the eyes, and may be irritating to the skin and respiratory tract. Effects of exposure may include reduced activity, nerve tissue changes, changes in heart rate/rhythm, heart tissue changes, decreased red blood cell count, kidney tissue changes, and muscle tissue changes.

It is possibly for these reasons that a high proportion of feed mixes used by the poultry industry are classified as dangerous and needing special transport arrangements under the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulation 2002.

However, this poster from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate also underlines the high levels of care that need to be taken by poultry producers to avoid residues of nicarbazin occurring in chicken meat. A governmental report published on May 14th 2008 showed that nicarbazin residues are still being found in British chicken. This is believed to be “due, at least in part, to poor feed management practices on-farm”:

The study highlighted that although it is best practice advice to empty bulk bins between feed deliveries, this does not always happen in practice, probably because farms are reluctant to risk shortage of food supplied to birds.

And they are reluctant to risk shortage of food supplied to birds because … answers on a postcard 😉 .

But surely coccidiosis is a problem in free-range and organic methods of farming, too? Well yes … but it’s more a question of scale. There is little doubt that intensive farming practices increase the risk of infection and make preventative treatment in the form of feed additives essential. The oocysts that are eaten by the chickens need sufficient litter moisture to sporulate and become infectious. The risk of infection is also greatly increased when birds live among their own litter droppings. Combined with a densely-stocked flock of chickens whose massive size and painful leg conditions prevent them from foraging over a wide area, the extent of the problem in intensive farming becomes obvious. Indeed, intensive farming of poultry only became possible after the development of anticoccidial drugs in the 1940s. Until then, extensive farming methods enabled chickens to become immune to the disease through “trickle vaccination,” or exposure to a continual but low-level incidence of coccidiosis. Pasture management and vaccination are still used by organic and free-range production systems to control outbreaks of coccidiosis and avoid the routine use of preventative anticoccidial medication.

So perhaps the simple answer would be to release all intensively-farmed chickens to the great outdoors. Unfortunately, this is not an option. As researchers discovered in 1994, fast-growing broiler chickens made little use of the pasture, perches or extra space when they were reared outside. Importantly, the researchers attributed this to the fact that 80% of the chickens had painful leg conditions by 7 weeks of age, which presumably prevented them from displaying any greater levels of activity despite the possibilities offered to them by their more natural surroundings. Furthermore, a comparison of slow and fast-growing broilers after the age of 6 weeks showed that the slow-growing birds walked around and spent more time outdoors, whilst the fast-growing strains were prevented from doing so by their extreme weight.

These observations are supported by evidence that painful foot pad and hock burns among intensively-reared broilers are less a result of poor management and more a consequence of selective breeding. However, as Dr John Hardiman reported in 1996, leg disorders ranked only 9th out of 12 in the selection programs of the major broiler breeding companies. It’s easy to guess which factors were rated first and second in importance by broiler breeders … improved growth rate and feed efficiency, respectively.

The implications of this have recently been underscored by findings from a Defra-funded study of leg disorders in broiler chickens:

We show that the primary risk factors associated with impaired locomotion and poor leg health are those specifically associated with rate of growth … The welfare implications are profound … A debate on the sustainability of current practice in the production of this important food source is required … the broiler industry will need to work with the scientific community to develop more robust and healthier genotypes and to ensure that optimal husbandry and management practices are fully implemented.

This is why I believe that the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards should be adopted as the minimum requirements for the entire broiler chicken industry. Key points include the provision of space for all chickens to move around and a restriction of the genetic growth rate of a chicken to no more than 45g a day, on average. With this assurance as a minimum, we could at least be confident that even our very cheapest chicken was of an acceptable welfare and nutritional standard.

For my own entry to Let Them Eat Chicken, I would like to offer a recipe that makes use of any left-over pieces of chicken. I developed this recipe because I absolutely love Chicken Kievs but was unable to find any that used organic or free-range chicken. Now I have a version that I would prefer any time over the highly-processed, intensively-farmed Chicken Kievs on offer in the supermarkets. I apologise in advance for the unorthodox amounts I use – it all depends on how hungry you are and how much chicken you have left to use!

Garlic Chicken Kiev

leftover pieces of cooked chicken
a few cloves of garlic
handful of chives
handful of parsley
a few slices of bread, crusts removed
enough milk to cover the bread
a large knob of butter for each Kiev
a bowl of seasoned flour (I add paprika, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, salt and black pepper … my husband says I should just add ‘mixed herbs’, but it feels more magical to add each herb separately!)
1 or 2 eggs, beaten
a bowl of breadcrumbs + grated parmesan

Mince the chicken, garlic, chives and parsley together (I use an antique Spong Mincer, but I’m sure there are more modern tools for the job)

Soak the bread in the milk for 15 minutes, then squeeze out the excess milk. Combine the soaked bread with the chicken mixture to obtain a consistency that holds its shape when formed into patties.

Scoop out a ball of chicken mixture with your hands. Press a knob of butter into the centre then smooth the mixture around to enclose the butter completely.

Roll the patty/Kiev in the seasoned flour, then in the egg and finally in the breadcrumbs/parmesan.

When you have used up all of the chicken mixture in this way, bake the Kievs on a baking tray in the centre of the oven (180 degrees C) for 35 to 40 minutes. Alternatively, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Let Them Eat Chicken

How do you choose which chicken meat to buy? Is it because it looks fresh and is within its sell-by date, or do you look first at the price? How much influence does the quality of the meat have on your choice?


It is easy to assume that organic, free-range chicken is a luxury only the wealthy can afford. Take this out of the picture and the rest of us are left to choose among the various standard packages of chicken on the supermarket shelves. Assessing quality becomes problematic, so in reality we are probably most influenced by appearance and price when it comes to actually putting a chicken in our trolley and on our tables.

It is also easy to assume that this is all fine and well. It might not be organic, but it’s the best we can manage. The majority of us are neither super-rich nor seasoned animal-rights activists. We have families to feed and tight budgets to control. Our daily lives are normal, mundane and average. Supermarket chicken might be cheap, but that’s our life. It’s cheap because we need it to be cheap. Consumer demand makes it cheap – it sells.

Does it matter how we keep the price of this chicken so low? Well yes, it does … if we’re at all interested in the quality of the meat we feed to our families, that is.

In January this year, The Independent reported covertly-shot footage of the chickens we are eating. The video was taken by the animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and can be seen here on YouTube.

The conditions seen in this video are typical of those in intensive systems of farming. They are designed to keep the cost of chicken low. Researchers from Edinburgh describe how each shed houses up to 20, 000 birds. The floor is covered with wood shavings that are not changed throughout the entire duration of a flock’s six-week life. The chickens therefore live constantly among their own litter and droppings. Furthermore, the chickens have little fresh air and no natural light. The sheds are windowless so that light, heating and ventilation can be artificially controlled to reduce movement and maximise weight gain.

These chickens are termed broilers as they are reared specifically for meat production. In other words, they are not simply egg-producing hens at the end of their useful laying life … as used to be the case. Instead, broiler chickens have been progressively selected to grow bigger and faster than egg-producing chickens, preferably with as much breast meat as possible to satisfy our demand for the product. They grow rapidly from 45g at birth to 2.2 kg at slaughter only 42 days later. This represents a 300% increase in growth rates over the last 50 years.

Recent research by scientists in the UK describes in detail how such a massive weight gain leads to poor walking ability and severe leg disorders in these very young chickens. They point out that strategies to reduce leg health problems would also reduce growth rate and production … which means the chickens could not be reared as quickly or as cheaply.

It’s a vicious circle propelled by the decisions we make in the supermarkets.

A survey in 2001 by researchers at the University of Reading highlights the centrality of animal welfare concerns to food safety, quality and healthiness. On the whole, we do understand that good animal welfare standards lead to good food standards. However, this research also suggests that we don’t really want to know about how our demand for cheap meat is translated into farm rearing practices:

Consumers claim that they are uninformed about modern animal production and would like more information so that they can make informed choices. However, the issue of information is double-edged. On the one hand, consumers believe they have the right to make informed food choices. On the other hand, consumers engage in voluntary ignorance, in order to abrogate responsibility for animal welfare … Moreover, although consumers claim that they are willing to pay more for improved animal welfare, at point of purchase such claims are not translated into practice.

And so we reach the bottom line. We are personally responsible for the meat we eat.

Unless we are willing to meet the costs, the burden of any regulatory change on producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and exporters will be too great. If we choose not to pay more for our chicken, broiler companies and farmers will be unable to implement any improvements to current commercial practices. What will be our sources of cheap chicken in the face of EU legislation on animal welfare? Do we really believe our children deserve no better quality of meat than that produced in factory farms?

Chicken dinner

If you’d like to join me in raising awareness about broiler rearing systems, there are several things you can do. Most importantly, take responsibility for your choices in the supermarket. Talk to friends and family – involve everyone you meet in a discussion about the quality of chicken meat. Support Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign. In short, create a demand for premium, higher-welfare chicken!

You can also send me your favourite chicken recipe using free-range chicken. I will make a round-up of all entries on my birthday, Friday 18th July.

To participate:

  • Post your favourite chicken recipe on your blog (or email me at with your name, recipe and photo of your dish)
  • Include in your post information about the chicken you used – where you bought it, what it tasted like etc.
  • Include a link to this blog announcement
  • Email me your name, blog URL and a link to your post by Wednesday 16th July.

I look forward to hearing from you 🙂 .