Eating your own Chickens

Yes. That million-dollar question. As you may know, my chickens have moved to my friend’s plot, and we ended up with 5 roosters, 3 of whom were related, and Ralph the Rhode Island was father to about 60% of the flock. Ralph had lost a spur early on in his life and the new growth curved round and dug in to his skin, necessitating frequent intervention with a nail file, and it kept catching. We weren’t sure what to do, as we could no longer breed from any of the birds in our flock.

There is a local smallholding group, and one member rears his own birds for the local town market in Lewes, and we contacted him to ask why we should do, as selling crossbred birds didn’t seem a sensible option. He offered to process our cockerels for us for a small fee, so we jumped at the opportunity.

We kept Tweedledee, the little Barnevelder bantam cockerel so that we could retain a cock-a-doodle-doo at Starnash, and we planned to amalgamate the birds and a rooster really helps keep them quiet and together.

At dusk the night before, we gently took the cockerels from their perches and put them in a crate under a light-blocking tarp in the back of Vicky’s car, ready for transportation the following morning. Three of them went in together, but we heard some scuffling when one of the larger boys went in so we put him in a separate box.

Early the following morning Vicky took them to the farm, where, without a peep, the chickens were humanely dispatched and then plucked and left to hang before being prepared for the table. We collected them 3 days later, and took them back to Vicky’s to discuss the proceedings.

We worked out who was who, which we wanted to do as they varied in age. Two were last year’s hatch, so just under a year old. The largest, weighing in at 6lbs was about 2, and Ralph was 4.

We decided to try coq au vin, as this is precisely the bird you are meant to use for this dish: a cockerel from an egg-laying breed that has scratched around for a year or so. You simply can’t buy a bird like that from any commercial or even small-scale meat bird operation so it felt quite a privilege to be using them for this recipe.

We went with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book recipe, which specifically suggests this type of bird. As such, we cooked it for 3 hours, by which point the meat was tender and juicy, but holding its shape and deliciously firm.

So, how did I feel, eating a chicken I had raised and interacted with? I felt really honoured. It was slightly surreal, but knowing they had had a full and wholesome life then calmly and quickly dispatched a few miles down the road was a real comfort. Roosters are a natural ‘by product’ if you want to utilise the wonder that is a broody hen and raise chicks, and now we know we can utilise the males once they have grown, it makes the whole operation more sustainable and circular.

What do you think? Do you eat your own animals?

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