Last month I was gifted three of the tastiest chickens I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.
The delightful Shirley Harring from Hand Sourced reached out to me and offered me the opportunity to sample the poultry from Sommerlad in Tenterfield.
I jumped on to the Sommerlad Poultry website and quickly became intrigued. I drove over to Shirley's cold room in Hendra, had a lovely chat, scored my beautiful chooks and some even green mangoes for chutney! Thanks, Shirley!
We were excited to see that our chooks had 'ID tags' on their wings: Shirley informed me we could trace their entire heritage back to the great great great grandma chooks from this number! They also had black feet and a few stray feathers. I had never in the past taken a moment to ponder that all our chooks' feet were white; we were evidently consuming a white-feathered breed without exception.
I took Shirley's advice in regards to roasting guidelines and popped the un-stuffed, seasoned chook in the oven with the parson's nose facing the back. I generally favour low and slow roasting and so was more than happy to take Shirley's advice to do just that.
The result two hours later? Only the most chickeny chicken ever. Sorry, Mrs Borrello from Grade Eight English. Sometimes the only adjective I can summon when excited is a mongrel form of a noun. Chickeny. Mmmm, Chickeny.
The crispiest skin. The meatiest flesh. The most sumptuous gravy. I was almost upset I told the family about it; I'm sure I could've devoured the entire bird with all the trimmings.
Please do excuse the lighting and those gorgeous benchtops. Renovation starts in about a month!
Look how REAL this bird looks!!!!
Note the wing band ID tag here. If we were to quote this number back to the folk at Sommerlad they could give us an Ancestry.com like synopsis of the individual bird's heritage!
This leads me to an email I received as a member of the Hand Sourced mailing list this morning. Shirley talked about the Sommerlad Poultry High table that happened outside Tenterfield on the weekend and offered this insight into why the chickens we get through general supply do not taste like Sommerlad Poultry. The following is an excerpt from Shirley's newsletter:
"Why doesn't our chicken taste like this"?
I am not going to tell you what Sommerlad chickens are (this diatribe is long enough as it is).
I am going to tell you what they are not.
In our current Australian market, all large and commercial chicken farms (including conventional, certified free-range, organic, pasture raised or RSPCA approved), rear the same fast growing meat chicken strains. Just 2 strains feed our Nation: Ross or Cobb.
Intensification of the broiler chicken industry started in the late 1950's when new poultry strains were genetically created specifically for meat production. In Australia in 1950/51, around 3 million table (eating) birds were raised by commercial growers. By 2011, this had grown to an annual turnover of over 500 million.
Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first Australian store in 1968, and as a result, increased our chicken consumption radically. Once a ‘treat’, here was a product we could consume anytime, and access quickly. In the early 1970s, in just 12 months as 75 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores opened, Australian production of chicken increased 38%.
The result of such narrowly focused breeding has resulted a chicken which grows up to three times faster and reaches slaughter weight at just 5-7 weeks of age. Also known as white broilers, (most meat chickens are white, the lovely free range brown hens you see on the glossies are layer birds) they are usually white-feathered, with yellow legs and a red comb, and generically known as a “Cobb cross” or, “Ross” followed by a few numbers: 308, 508, 708. Those names come from the companies that hybridized them and maintain their genetic lines: U.S.-based Cobb Vantress, and the Ross division of the German Aviagen Group. These are owned and developed by the intensive farming chicken industries in Scotland and America, and are imported into Australia. They are selectively bred and developed for intensive indoor production with an emphasis on feed efficiency and breast meat development.
Commercial chicken meat and commercially grown chicken eggs are two completely different industries and rely on very different breeds. The two are not interchangeable as selective genetic breeding means they have been isolated for purpose.
"But my conventional / free-range / organic / pasture raised chicken came from a local farm, so therefore, that makes it better.”
Well, maybe not.
Two very large, privately owned integrated companies hold a monopoly on the Australian chicken industry, supplying around 80% of Australia's broiler chickens - Inghams Enterprises; and Baiada Poultry (who own Steggles, Lilydale and Bartter). They control access to all chickens grown for the table by managing the growth and manufacture of high protein feed, the establishment and management of contracts to chicken hatchers and 'growers', and the mechanised slaughtering and processing plants. These same companies have possessorship over Coles, Woolworths, IGA, Aldi, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Red Rooster, Nandos and Subway.
Your free-range, organic, pasture raised or RSPCA approved chickens begin life from the stock controlled, held and managed by these companies. If you think I am talking it up - ask your farmer if he (or she) breeds their chicks from eggs, or if they buy their 2 day old bird from a commercial hatchery. I'll bet you a chicken it's the latter.
Organic, free range and pastured chicken farmers still rear fast growing strains of meat chickens, therefore remain reliant on the intensive chicken industry to produce stock. Whilst consumers are now more aware of the treatment of sows in the pork industry, they rarely hear about or consider the welfare issues associated with the parent birds in the chicken industry.
50 years ago it took 98 days for a chicken to grow to 1.6kg. By 1986, it took just 37 days.
All fast growing meat chickens in Australia come from parents with a similar fast growth rate that are housed and managed intensively, including high stocking densities and restrictive feeding. Your chicken may have had a grand life - but the bottom line is, it came from same stock and the same intensive breeding as every other chook - fast food, supermarket chain, butcher and farmer direct included.
Next time, I'll talk to you about bleaching and processing. But I think I've given you enough to think about for now. What's on your table for dinner?
Hand Sourced is a fantastic resource for foodies who love fantastic, local produce and who are interested in where their food comes from. Subscribe to the newsletter here: http://www.handsourced.com.au/newsletter-sign-up-form/ or simply go to www.handsourced.com.au to find out more.
Brisbane Foodie and family would like to take this opportunity to thank Shirley profusely for her generosity and look forward to buying a lot more of our meat through her company in the future. Hubs from New Zealand is particularly excited about the venison from Ballandean!
PS: a two-page fact sheet on Sommerlad Poultry can be found here.