Our work in preparing the sheep has continued and through the last week we have been fleshing out the skins and salting them. In the last day or sowe have even started to put some of the skins into the tanning solution. At our present rate of progress we anticipate continuing with this work for another fortnight or so. However, earlier last week something captured my attention and made me pay more attention to the poultry.
Emrys, one of our cockerels, a White Sussex, was looking depressed and dejected. It also looked as if he had been fighting and not always winning. I then noticed that I had mis-gendered one of the “girls” that I had added to his harem after the last batch hatched. One of the girls had grown rapidly and was now as big as Emrys. He had started to crow in the morning, and on further inspection was clearly not a girl but another cockerel. None of our cockerels, at the moment, will tolerate other males around them and they fight viciously. Emrys and the new boy had started and it was only a matter of time until serious damage, or death, would result. We decided therefore that the new boy had to go and planned that he would be our supper that night (and lunch for a few days after as soup).
I find that the safest and fasted way to dispatch poultry is using a killing cone. This is made by using an old traffic cone, pared at the top at bottom and screwed to a large tree. This holds the bird firmly but not unpleasantly and allows you to use the machete, or axe, in a way that there is no chance of missing or just maiming the bird. From arrival at the cone to the completion of the deed takes about 10 seconds, it does not seem unduly disturbing for the bird, and death is instantaneous. This also allows you to leave the bird for a short period after dispatch, with a bucket below, to catch the blood which flows in a controlled fashion.
The next stage is to prepare your bird. I find that plucking the bird is best done as quickly as possible, it is an easier job when the bird is still warm. If you can not do the plucking immediately then it is best to wait for quite a while. Birds pluck easier when they are either still warm or are completely cold – a half warm bird can be difficult to pluck. Although there are ways to aid plucking by putting the bird in boiling water for a short spell, or by buying plucking machines, it is not a difficult job and most people can pluck a chicken within 15 to 20 minutes (The same, unfortunately, can not be said for ducks.)
Pluck by grabbing small amounts of feathers between your index finger and thumb and pull sharply. I find pulling ‘against the grain’ – from bottom to top – works best. Don’t be tempted to take too large clumps as you will risk tearing the skin and will also find you tire more quickly and the job ends up taking the same length of time. After you have plucked the chicken use a cleaver to remove the feet and scissors to remove the remains of the wings.
Remember, as always, don’t waste anything, even the feet are edible. I find that the chicken feet recipes often call for a lot of work, and often spices that I don’t carry all the time (star anise, for example). However, my two assistants are not bothered by all that culinary pfaff and prefer their chicken feet raw. Also the feathers should have been collected as these have their uses while I will describe in a future post. Now onto the next stage.
After plucking we have to dress the bird. This can be a messy and smelly task but it is not a difficult one. Firstly it is important to cut around the bird’s anus. This will allow is to pull the intestines out without them bursting or leaking which is something we obviously want to avoid. Having done this, make a cut from this cut up to the birds breastbone this will allow you to put your hand in and remove the innards. Having got the intestines out it is important to put your hand back in and up as far as you can manage to pull out the heart and windpipe. Once these are removed you have largely dressed your bird ready for the oven. Remember to wash the heart, gizzards and liver for use later on. These can be used as the giblets for making gravy, or the liver is an excellent base for pate, and the meat from the gizzards, once fried, is excellent in a salad (salade gésiers).
About three quarters of an hour after starting the task the bird is ready and can be used in any of your favourite recipes. This one, however, was going to be very simply treated and roasted in the range. Before going in, it was laid on top of a bed of onions and root vegetables (parsnip & carrot) and seasoned with tarragon and garlic. It was cooked for the usual time and the juices reserved for making gravy and the cooked vegetables were used as a side dish. Once roasted it was ready to eat.
Be prepared, chickens you rear and prepare yourself will not be like the conveyor belt chickens you have come to expect. It will, in the first place, be smaller – a free range chicken which as been active and enjoyed its life will never be as large as its factory counterpart. All the exercise it has enjoyed also means the meat will be firmer and less tender. These two signs should let you know that you have done better by the bird and you let it have a better, more natural life. The biggest difference, however, will be in the taste – it will taste of chicken. It will not be the bland white meat devoid of interest but instead it will be full of flavour and this will more than make up for any lack of size.