Supermarket, battery or free range, get your chicken by fair means or fowl

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 November, 2011, 12:00am


The Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels group's decision not to sell shark's fin in its Peninsula hotel chain no doubt had many motives. Speaking to those opposed to eating it over many years, I think one reason is squeamishness over the harvesting process.

We seem to have become squeamish and distrustful about the source of much of our food, with some thinking that intensive agriculture must be to blame for many modern ills.

The obsession with traceability has reached the point that restaurants feel obliged to give you the name of the farm your steak came from and even the butcher.

An advantage of large-scale modern agriculture is the way it divides work so fewer people are subjected to the rigours of life on the farm and can produce more food.

Modern agriculture may be a dirty affair - birds are cooped up with no space to move and on legs to weak to support them - but it's still far cleaner than before.

Sure, raising chickens in the backyard is fun, assuming that you not only have a backyard, but also a high tolerance to their smells and can sleep through the dawn chorus.

You may not know that cockerels, being quite stupid and not in possession of a watch, have been known to mistake 4am or even 3.30am for dawn.

You can monitor your chicken's diet, seeing how much your next meal enjoys worms, rice husks and river snails. And then you can set aside your squeamishness to introduce them to the next world.

If you have ever eaten a fresh free-range local chicken or a southeast Asian ayam kampong (village chicken), you will have tasted the difference freshness makes, but wouldn't you rather buy your chicken from the supermarket?

The late Clement Freud, writer politician, broadcaster and cook, served his chef's apprenticeship at London's Dorchester hotel and knew his Bresse from his Challons chickens. But he was no food snob. In his 1978 book Freud on Food, he wrote: 'Undoubtedly lack of life with a capital L translates itself into tender and unexciting meat; flesh devoid of the flavours of rotting grains of corn, bacon-steeped peas and twigs of wild garlic give to the more worldly farmyard bird. But there is no question that this lack of flavour is vastly exaggerated by the food snob.

'After all, we now get cheaper chickens, meatier chickens, more chickens, and if in their short and uneventful life they don't achieve a lot of flavour, why, then, they must have flavour thrust upon them.'

Creating flavour, that's what makes cooking fun .