Slow-grown, free range and British. Here’s how fried chicken got good.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, fried chicken shops have become a mainstay of London’s culture.
Originally popularised by dear old Colonel Sanders in the US in the mid ‘30s, the same man bought fried chicken to UK shores (first stop: Preston) in 1965.
Now, fried chicken shops – and their pengest of munches – are on almost every London high street – from the white, red, and blue veneers of Chicken Cottage to the perhaps surprisingly not-as-ubiquitous KFC.
“Cheap food at high speed”
Ask your average customer (some apparently visit twice a day), and they’ll say there’s few things not to like. Especially the price. In some joints 12 nuggets come in at £3.50, and a fillet burger a little over £3. But then, that only makes you wonder – where does this chicken come from? How are they kept? Who looks after them?
Curious to how these chicken shops go about their sourcing, I tried reaching out to these companies (some have email addresses, few of which belonging to executives, while very few have direct phone numbers). Unsurprisingly, all I got was tumbleweed. True, busy schedules and out of office time have to be accounted for. My guess? They rather we didn’t know.
‘The pressure high street joints are under to provide cheap food at high speed means their meat is usually sourced from battery farms and fried from frozen’ says Dunya Kalantery, the Director of Tottenham’s not-for-profit social enterprise Chicken Town.
Fried chicken with a conscience
Chicken Town is one of a new breed of fried chicken outlets with a difference opening in the capital. A trend that kicked off a few years ago, they’re joined by Mother Clucker, the ‘clucking good’ chicken slingers serving buttermilk soaked higher welfare meat from a converted US Army ambulance in the cark park of Shoreditch’s Truman Brewery.
Fellow fried chickensters Chick ‘n’ Sours recently spread their wings from their existing Covent Garden and Hackney restaurants to open Chik’n in Baker Street with a decidedly fast-food feel. With the promise of ‘changing fried chicken for the good’, they were forced to close temporarily after opening due to high demand, having served over a tonne of chicken to around 10,000 customers in their first week. Staff at Chik’n are paid an industry leading hourly wage and can take 3 paid days a year to perform charity work of their choice. Then there’s the team at Butchies, the ‘street diner with love’, who indulge Broadway Market-goers with free-range, buttermilk-marinated, guac-slathered, moisture-rich burger fillets of glee.
Incidentally, this lot are more responsive to their emails. Butchies founder Garrett Fitzgerald says: ‘For us, it’s all about the flavour and the welfare standards of the birds. Our chicken comes from Castlemead Poultry – a small free-range farm in Frome, Somerset, where the chickens are allowed to grow in their own time, free to explore the fields surrounding their houses, incorporating natural goodness into their diets.’
Though not a new concept, this still rings as refreshing – look to the ‘our values’ section on the website of your average high street fried chicken chain and their philosophy extends no further than ‘hearty portions’, ‘fair prices’, ‘brand loyalty’, and a ‘multi-choice menu’.
Flocking in for flavour
It’s not just the welfare of the birds these traders and restaurants are mostly looking out for. It’s the flavour they impart, too. Chicken Town’s burgers, fillets, and breasts are fried in a fraction of the fat and salt of your usual chicken shop and come from free-range, herb-fed native breeds in the Yorkshire Dales. This puts a reliance, as Dunya says, ‘on the flavour of the chicken meat, rather than the flavour carried by deep-frying.’
The same goes for Chick ‘n’ Sours. Co-founder David Wolanski tells me how the chickens he sources are on a far more nutrient-rich diet than those of intensively farmed hens. ‘Our chickens come from Castlemead and a small traditional farm in Pilmoor Grange, Yorkshire. These are fed on a diet of over 10 herb varieties and salad leaves from farmer Ed’s auntie’s veg farm down the road. They eat produce that isn’t quite right for the supermarkets. It probably even tastes better than what’s in the supermarkets.’
Tastes better, better for the environment?
Perhaps then, we can tag on the fact that responsibly sourced chicken is better for the food system, ergo the environment. However, is there another side to the fried chicken story? Garrett, who has a Masters in Sustainability, says industrialised methods, the likes of which KFC relies on, ‘actually have a lower carbon footprint than free range or organic chicken’.
Depending on the particular type of poultry farming methods used, that rings true. When rearing 34,000 birds – each until they’re a mere 35 days old – in the same shed, resources expended and land used per chicken is going to be a lot lower. But does this outweigh the ethical merits of higher welfare, free range, slow-grown and organic chicken? You could call it the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. But Dunya, David, and Garrett will all tell you the same thing:
‘I choose higher welfare, free range chicken as it’s the most ethical choice for our business,’ says Garrett. It’s also a far superior product than battery farmed varieties.’ Amen to that.