Fowl Play (and Chicken Satay) by Carol Wilson
Not all that long ago, chicken was a luxury, a treat to be anticipated at Christmas or on special occasions. Chickens were reared slowly until they were plump and succulent, before they were slaughtered at around eighty days old. Then in the late 1950s, intensive farming was introduced from the USA and chickens gradually became cheaper and today are affordable by almost everyone.
But cheapness and availability come at a price. Intensively reared chickens or ‘broilers’ as they are called are kept in windowless sheds, lit by carefully controlled artificial lighting and are fed and watered automatically. The minimum legal requirement of space for one bird is just under 3/4 the size of an A4 sheet of paper and there are anything from 20,000 to a 100,000 birds kept in just one shed.
Even more horrific is the fact that their beaks are cut to stop them causing too much damage to each other. Their feed is supplemented with antibiotics and growth enhancers and as the chickens’ growth is accelerated, many birds become lame because their legs can’t take the extra weight. The concrete floors of the sheds are covered with litter- wood shavings, shredded paper or straw, which is not removed until the birds are slaughtered. As a result, the birds sleep in their own mess and sometimes develop breast blisters and hock burns – easily identifiable by the marks on the upper leg joints of cheap chickens. More than two million chickens die from disease in the sheds each year, due to improper faeces clearing.
After slaughtering, the chickens are plunged into scalding water, after which a mechanical process removes the feathers. The birds absorb water during this time -up to 7.4% of their own body weight and then the birds are often frozen. Its little wonder that broilers have little flavour or texture!
Around 8 million broiler chickens are sold every yea, compared to around 3 million free-range birds in the UK. However, some chicken that is labelled ‘free range’ may not be all that it seems. The law permits three types of ‘free-range’, so it’s best to look for the words ‘Traditional Free Range’ or ‘Free Range Total Freedom’ and also to ascertain that the bird has been dry plucked as opposed to being immersed in scalding water. If the bird has also been hung in the traditional way, this will also concentrate the flavour.
Genuinely free range birds are reared in small houses and moved regularly on to new grass. The best have 24-hour access to the outdoors, with fresh air and the freedom to scratch about, plus access to shelter when needed, a place to roost and a plentiful supply of grain and fresh water.
Organic free range chickens have continuous daytime access to clean pasture (except in adverse weather) and are slaughtered when they are at least 81 days old. They feed on corn (grown without the use of chemicals), fish meal, full fat soya, field beans, lucerne (a type of grass) and a small addition of natural vitamins and minerals.
Commercial free-range systems have massive flocks, often around 15,000 birds, which are housed in huge sheds. Legally, the birds must have continuous access to open-air runs, and there must not be more than 1,000 birds per hectare of ground to which the birds have access.
The meat of intensively reared chickens has a bland flavour, flabby, often watery texture and none of the succulence of organic and free-range farmyard chickens. The latter need longer cooking times to allow their strong muscles to become tender. I’ve tried several types of chicken and the best are from small farmers and producers who are concerned about the welfare of their birds and are proud of their happy flocks.
Of course rearing chickens this way is more expensive, but surely we’d be willing to pay the extra in return for the old fashioned rich meaty flavour and beautiful firm moist texture?
350g/12 oz chicken breast meat, skin removed
6 tablespoons soy sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon Light Muscovado sugar
1 garlic clove, crushed
2.5cm/1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and crushed
4 tablespoons crunchy peanut butter
250ml/8 fl oz water
Cut the meat into small pieces and place in a bowl. Combine the soy sauce, lemon juice, sugar, garlic and ginger and pour over the chicken. Cover and leave to marinate for 2-8 hours. Thread the chicken pieces on to pre soaked bamboo skewers (to prevent them burning) keeping the meat as flat as possible. Put the peanut butter and water in a pan and pour in the marinade juices. Bring to the boil, stirring and simmer for 3-5 minutes until the mixture is smooth and shiny. Remove from the heat. Cook the chicken skewers under a preheated medium hot grill for about 3 minutes per side. Serve with a small bowl of the satay sauce for dipping the meat.