Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chicken and Tarragon Soup

Last week I paid £17 for a chicken. I had a funny little lurch in my stomach when the butcher told me the price. It is a lot of money for one chicken.

It was undoubtedly a magnificent bird - a huge thing, over three kilos in weight, all plump pale curves and healthy flesh. It came from Ginger Pig, owned by the inimitable Tim Wilson, a man on a mission to rear traditional breeds in sustainable systems to produce and sell the finest possible meats. It is a business - an extremely successful one - run on a strict commercial basis.

He started with pigs and fine longhorn cattle and raises sheep as well. He now owns three properties, one of which has 300 acres turned over to grow barley, wheat, oats and fodderbeat almost all of which goes to feed the animals. On Grange Farm, the original and largest farm in Yorkshire as well as an impresive flock of breeding ewes there are the production units where the primary butchery of all their meat is carried out alongside the curing of their utterly sublime bacon. In this way he has control of the whole life cycle of the animals and so can guarantee the standard of care for the entire life of each animal. Tim told me once when he was at Borough that he looks after all his animals until they are butchered so that he can be sure that they are well treated for their entire lives. One of his guiding principals is that he can guarantee that the animals do not suffer in life. Such devotion breeds great meat. What happens after he sells the meat he can't control - but it does inpsire me to cook as well as possible to honour my part in this process.

About two years ago Ginger Pig put thirty acres of land into conversion to organic status on which to raise chickens. Big chickens. Old Fashioned - the name of the breed as well as an accurate description of the bird - grow to 4 kilos or more in weight and are bred for taste, texture and flavour in a serious move away from the small pappy birds of the supermarkets. A chicken that tastes like chicken. Bliss.

So when I bought it I was absolutley sure my bird had lived a good life. It needed equally fabulous treatment in the cooking.

First off I made a stuffing of cooked barley with bacon and tarragon - quite a substantial amount to stuff cavity this big. Then I draped the bird with some more rashers of bacon after seasoning the skin, put a good slug of olive oil into the bottom of a big roasting tin and cooked the chook for a bit under two hours till it was golden skinned and smelling divine. We had a fabulous old fashioned Sunday supper with roast potatoes and steamed leeks and carrots on the side. £17 was beginning to seem reasonable.

Another thing I bought at Borough the same day was Jersey Royals so I boiled them briefly and dressed them in Helmans and now I had the basis for lunches for the week. Cold roast chicken, moist and well flavoured, plus barley stuffing, potato salad topped with leftover cold steamed leeks and a handful of raw sugarsnap peas. Yum. The chicken was so substantial to start with that there was enough to last till Thursday - so that's dinner for two then eight lunches already. £17 was beginning to look like good value.

Friday I picked over the carcass for all the little nuggets of flesh left on it then put the bones into a big pot with onions and carrot and celery and tarragon and thyme and peppercorns, covered the lot with water and simmered it for a couple of hours till I had about three quarters of a litre of stock. “Stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one’s stock is good, what remains of the work is easy; if, on the other hand, it is bad or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory meal.”Auguste Escoffier in Guide Culinaire (1903)

I peeled and finely choppped a small onion, a small carrot and a rib of celery. I fried the vegetables in about a tablespoon of butter till they just started to soften. Poured in the stock, warmed it through, then added 150ml of whipping cream, the rest of the meat from the carcass and a tablespoon of very finely chopped tarragon, stirred the pot gently till it had all warmed through but wasn't bubbling. Checked and adjusted the seasoning. Served in big bowls with some crusty bread, it was deeply flavoured and unctuously rich - a magnificent end to my chicken.

There was even enough left to put one serving into the freezer for a home alone night some other time.
Amazing food for two for a week. By now £17 seems like a bargain.

And This Week...I Bought

Bank holiday weekend and sunshine. An almost unheard of combination but I was so delighted it seemed churlish to question it. Borough Market was quiet early on - everyone getting a slow start perhaps - dazzled by the sun.

Went to Ginger Pig for a piece of boned rolled shoulder of pork which I had planned to roast Monday night and have leftovers cold for lunches but we had cold sausages and a pork pie I defrosted so the pork is now in the freezer and - for the first barbecue of the year, the idea of which amused John as I think he was sure it would rain - a kilo of chippolata sausages - £24

Then to Booths where we were immediately seduced by the smell of english strawberries - for breakfast smoothies for the weekend - summer is here! Also bought bananas, lettuce, parsley, pink fir potatoes, thin green beans, alfalfa sprouts, all these for salads Monday and lunchboxes, onions, peppers, courgettes for roasted vegetable pasta Friday night £11.80

Decided on crab for lunch as we wandered past Shellseekers - there was much excitement as they'd just sold a 50 kilo sea trout. I was sorry not to have seen it! Bought a dressed crab - £7

Some beef sausages from Wild Beef - possibly overkill! indeed, they are now in the freezer - £3.90

Cheeses from Gastronomica - a rough hewn salty pecorino, a creamy subtle hard goats cheese and a goodly hunk of tomme which we took with us for the end of hugely enjoyable bbq lunch in Richmond Park with Jaey and Marie - £15

Baby plum tomatoes salads and pasta from the Isle of Wight stall - £3.50

And asparagus Saturday supper with poached duck egg and salad because it was so good last week - from the garlic stall next to them - £4.50

Chocolates from l'Artisan du chocolat - £2 - they may be misshapes but they are a perfect thing in my book

Parma ham with asparagus and mozzarella beginning to develop a taste for mozzarella on toast as a lazy Sunday breakfast - the cool elegant taste of summer on a hot(tish) day - £8.90

Had a chat with the lovely Marie who is filling in for a few weeks at the Fresh Olive stall

Then off to Neals Yard for milk and bread and yoghurt - £8.40

Chocolate brownie and a cottage loaf from Flour Power - £3

Spent £92 - not really buying more than usual but prices are rising as production costs go up

This time last year we were mostly eating roasted asparagus with tomato and haloumi - something I was thinking of having agian this week. A couple of other things from previous May's are chorizo salad and prawns with carrot and spiced oil that you might like to try.
I'm off for a few weeks to France and Oz - and planning to eat well but without blogging!