I almost had a line on really good, free-range, local chicken. I came across a gentleman at my town market a year ago who was so proud of his chickens that he regaled me about just how slow-grown, and properly free-range they were. You could taste it too. The skin was delicious and the chicken had just a hint of gaminess that I’d never tasted before. Also, the meat was dense and extremely flavourful.
I was in a frugal phase a year ago and wasn’t prepared to splash out so much for roast chicken on a weekly basis. I was content with the Lidl free-range at about half the price. Yet, just before the latest lockdown, I saw this local farmer again and was planning to chat with him about feed, animal welfare and the like. Having done my research on the way industrial methods were changing the fat composition of chickens, I thought now was the time to bite the bullet, pay a bit more and enjoy better chicken. It wasn’t that I’d discovered anything bad about Lidl; it was that I couldn’t discover anything about their chicken other than it met free-range criteria. Then, of course, Bojo the Clown locked England down for a third time and the market was no more.
So what is a boy to do if he can’t find local chicken? I went to my butcher first and tried their free-range birds. I have to say I was disappointed, even though I love everything else they have there. The bird’s breast was enormous, the legs tiny and one wing was broken. For me, these are tell tales that the chicken has not been able to forage much. Moreover, the breast was too tender and spongy; there was no muscle density. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that this farmer was doing the bare minimum to gain the free-range label.
For the immediate future, I’ve found an alternative until the local market re-opens. I’m not that surprised that it ended up being Sainsbury’s because, even though they’re a big retailer, they deliver on a lot of good, organic food. The chicken is very tasty, not as good as my local experience, but still you can tell that these birds have been out and about and fed well.
This range adheres to the Soil Association standards which are the highest in the kingdom. What does this mean in practice? All kinds of good things for the chickens and us:
- Must have access to pasture (when weather and ground conditions permit) and are truly free range, and must have plenty of space (indoors and outdoors).
- Are fed a diet that is as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- Graze and forage naturally on organic pasture (grasses and other crops) where only natural fertilisers are used and pesticides are severely restricted. Instead of manufactured chemical fertilisers, clover is used in organic farming to fix nitrogen so that crops and grass grow. Organic grazing animals therefore have a diet containing high levels of clover, which is linked to nutritional differences in Omega 3.
- They live in smaller flocks – eight times smaller than in free-range systems – this is because the health of individual birds can be much more easily managed within a smaller flock.
- Organic poultry must have continuous and easy daytime access to a diverse outdoor range – farmers must provide more pop holes from the hen-house than free-range farms do too, to encourage them to explore the range.
So until I can touch base again with the local farmer, this is the best I can do when it comes to welfare and food quality. In particular, I’m encouraged about what the soil association says about diet and Omega-3s.