We paid a visit to Nick Ball & Jacob Sykes at Fosse Meadows Farm to learn how a slow-grown chicken is a very different beast to the pallid fast-grown supermarket variety.
Nick and Jacob have flown the flag for slow-grown chicken for the last 8 years. They saw an opportunity for a better quality chicken in the massive UK poultry industry, moving from London to Leicestershire to make it happen. “In France chicken farmed under the Label Rouge banner is quite well known. However there were very few farmers doing a proper slow-grown chicken in the UK.” Nick, the son of a traditional pig farmer, incubated the business with Jacob from humble beginnings on his father’s farm. Fosse Meadows now produces over 1,000 slow-grown birds a week.
On the morning of our visit, we are immediately struck by the vast space the chickens have to roam. In fact there are few physical boundaries at all during daylight hours. Chicken scratch amongst hedgerows and across fields to their heart’s content. “What we’re doing is quite different from say your Red Tractor supermarket chicken where birds are housed day and night 40,000 per shed.” says Nick.
Every day over 2.2m chickens are consumed in the UK. It’s perhaps no surprise that speed of production has become key. A bird which lives longer costs more to feed. The quicker a bird can be raised to maturity, the less it costs to sell. It would be impossible to put a chicken on a shelf for £3 unless it were alive for the briefest possible time.
The length of time a chicken has lived is not a mainstream concern in the UK. Although shoppers may seek an “organic” or “free range” chicken, it’s unlikely they will find a proper slow-grown bird in the supermarket. A traditionally farmed slow-grown bird at Fosse Meadows takes 81 days to reach maturity. By comparison a supermarket chicken will have been grown from hatchling to shrink-wrapped meal in just 35 days.
Compared to a slow-grown chicken, a 35 day old chicken has a greater risk of harbouring campylobacter bacteria. Campylobacter causes food poisoning when consumed. “Campylobacter is naturally more prevalent in the gut of young bird at 35 days, gradually decreasing as the birds reaches maturity at 81 days.” says Nick. A recent study also revealed that 25% of supermarket birds tested positive for e-coli. Cramped conditions and relative immaturity make supermarket chicken the perfect vehicle for dangerous bacteria.
A five week old slow-grown chicken is half the size of a supermarket chicken. “Our slow-grown chickens are just 800g at 35 days. This is the age your typical supermarket chicken is sent to slaughter. They are getting them to over 1.5kgs in that time” says Nick. The two farmers stand holding a bird each, one aged 35 days and one aged 81 days. It’s almost inconceivable that the smaller bird could be conditioned into maturity so early.
Supermarket chicken slaughtered at such an immature age makes for disturbing forensics. The farmers put a bought supermarket chicken on their farm table next to one of their slow-grown birds. Says Nick “The first thing to note on a commercial bird is the skin quality. You can see this one has such thin skin it has been partially disintegrated in the scoulding bath when removing feathers.” I’m reminded of the frustration of putting my finger right through the skin of a supermarket bird. Stuffing the breasts with butter and herbs like a TV chef is often fraught.
A slow-grown chicken looks remarkably bigger and more robust than the supermarket chicken when placed side-by-side. “Slow-grown birds have much more elongated breasts as they work harder. The breast meat has flavour and more structure. The legs of a supermarket chicken are very stumpy as they just don’t use them.” says Jacob. But the real contrast can be found in the bone structure. Jacob dissects a supermarket bird in front of us and is able to distort the carcass easily with his bare hands. He cannot repeat the feat on his slow-grown bird. The leg bones of a commercial bird can also be cut with a knife. “You won’t get the same same quality of broth from these bones, they’re quite bloody and underdeveloped.” says Jacob.
Our visit draws to a close over a delicious farmer’s bake of slow-grown chicken served with rustic veg and garlic. “Our chicken is like what your grandparents would have eaten. You’ll notice apart from the taste that it’s much more filling than the supermarket variety.” Says Jacob. The farming duo are also conscious to cook their chicken differently. “A slow-grown bird will not tolerate being over cooked. To retain the moisture in the bird at home ourselves we’re cooking to 70 degrees, sometimes 65. I would never risk doing that with a shop bought bird!”
As we leave Fosse Meadows well fed and well educated we wonder whether slow-grown chicken could become a “thing” in the UK. With the supermarket’s dominance of poultry sales it seems unlikely that there is the channels to make it a mainstream concern. However we leave in no doubt that, as is the Fosse Meadows mantra, that “happy birds taste better”.