Once upon a time, we might have chicken for Christmas.
A generous bird with lovely browned skin, fragrant flesh, all the trimmings and my mother’s unrepeatable gravy, the benchmark of when memory is just that and not a cure for reinvention.
Now, I think if you suggested chicken for Christmas, people might think you were “poor” and prevailing social opinion suggests that, while heaven forbid you should be poor, if you are – don’t admit it.
Contributing to a Radio Four programme on attitudes to money (some time ago, I paraphrase) the presenter told me “You are very conscious about money” to which I replied that she asked the questions: I answered.
Poor is a four letter word, meaning different things to different people.
Back to the chicken.
I was perhaps 8 when we tried one of the new battery birds and it was the only time in my home that I ever saw food thrown away. My parents came through both World Wars and, as recent historical evaluation makes clear, alongside tons of destructive weaponry, Europe’s greatest problem was lack of food.
So taking food off family plates, wrapping up and disposing of quite a lot of chicken, was a big deal. So was the expression on my mother’s face.
“Disgusting” she said. “Tasted of fish.”
Nowadays chicken is cheap. Well, some chicken is cheap and as red meat represents a mortgage acquisition or dietary restriction, fish is mostly just as pricey and we are rightly being urged to eat more vegetables, chicken is cheap(er).
A friend told me the other day how she stood in one of the more expensive supermarkets behind a designer draped couple, he with the stonking great watch and she with the stonking great shoes (visible signs of disposable income) while he said to her “I just can’t see paying £10 for an effing chicken”.
Just as well I wasn’t there.
Because I am a chicken hunter.
Where I used to live, we had a good butcher and chickens perfectly acceptable in price and flavour.
An organic butcher with great chickens came and went.
In those days Nigella Lawson wrote for a magazine I still gave houseroom so on her recommendation, I trekked over to Holland Park and bought a peerless bird. Occasionally.
I was introduced to Borough Market. Good chicken.
I went to Jago in Elystan Street – good chicken… To The Ginger Pig – good chicken.
Tried every stall in my local farmers’ market where chicken was OK but not distinguished (NB I changed ovens so some of this may be my fault).
Mr. Waitrose – usually acceptable.
The best of all meat including chicken came from Jon and Louise at Peradon Organic Farm.
My son once remarked that Mum would go 15 miles for a good chicken.
Of course all this is to do with personal taste but living alone on a budget, a good chicken is an investment.
The first time I found a boiling fowl (£5) and came home to make chicken soup (o joy, o triumph, o thank you heaven – I lived on it for a week), those to whom I told the story couldn’t see the achievement.
“You’re Jewish; of course you know how to make chicken soup.”
I am at best half a Jew – I’d be the first to say, better than none – but it’s on my father’s side and I had never made chicken soup, though I love to cook.
A good enough chicken means hot meals, cold meals and stock.
A not good enough chicken means “Oh …”
And as the taxi driver said “What’s all this about cheap food? Very little food worthy of the name is cheap. I want the best I can get for as little as I can spend.”
Hence the chicken hunt.
A couple of years after the dreadful battery bird, with which this obsession began, we had an enormous delicious Argentine turkey.
One of nature’s pickers, I kept going out to the kitchen and taking a bit, and then another, and so on. There was a great deal left and it kept well but my father told me how when early settlers went to the Americas, they found wild turkey so plentiful that they ate only the breast and discarded the rest.
Even then I found this story disturbing.
Don’t take a good bird for granted. It’s harder to raise than you think.
PS The Poultry Council did not pay for this writing.
Update: www.fossemeadows.co.uk , discovered through Juliet at the Farmers Market – gold star!