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.


Anna said...

I bet your chicken was divine! Yes, £17 is a lot of money, I agree, but I bet not one scrap goes to waste, and how much better to eat such a superb quality bird less frequently, than a lesser quality bird more often?
A lovely post!

bron said...

You're right Anna - it was a real joy to eat and I genuinely think it was good value because it took us through the week. I read about people throwing away a third of the food they buy, often not even removed from its packaging, and feel appalled at such heedless waste. Better by far to pay more for better quality and enjoy eating it all than to buy and bin becasue it is 'cheap'. I suspect the costs balance out in the long run.