Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Run, Chicken, Run!

Last night I dreamt that I ran away with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Honesty compels me to confess that the whole affair was more indecisive than in flagrante – I haven’t yet been able to recall exactly where we ran to, but never mind.

When I relayed this interesting snippet to my husband across the breakfast cereals, he rolled his eyes to heaven, shook his head sadly and left the table.
I’m still not sure whether that was a tacit comment on my penchant for fanciful dreams or on the improbability of my securing so eligible a parti as the alliterating-chef.

If  pressed, I would have to say that while I’m a great admirer of Hugh’s, he’s not the heart-throb pinned inside my wardrobe door, nor does he feature on my list of elopement candidates.
It must be about chickens.
As far as chickens are concerned, HF-W and I are as one.
Well, nearly as one.

You may recall that some years ago, Hugh inaugurated the 'Chicken Out' campaign - to alleviate the lot of commercially reared poultry. (Let’s all raise our glasses to him!) I don’t know about you, but it made me weep. Admittedly, it doesn’t take much, but the way Britain – Ireland - America? – the world? - rears chickens for human consumption is despicable. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush here, the intensive rearing of any animal is despicable. The way we produce food is deeply, deeply flawed.

And it’s not just meat. Take milk. I know it’s so normal, we don’t even think about it, but to me there is something completely wrong about taking a calf away from its mother as soon as it’s born so that we get the milk – while it gets fed from a bucket in a shed somewhere else. How can that be right for the mother or the calf? The de-facto birthright of an animal to be with its mother doesn’t even register on the scale – with cows or chickens. We have turned them into machines.

Sorry – I’ll get off my soap-box now.

Mercifully, vegetables are less emotive, and with more and more people growing their own, it’s easier and less expensive to be choosy about how they are produced. Isn’t it funny, how time and perspective change everything. I remember once, years ago, standing in my local greengrocer’s in London and looking with amazement at the produce on show. It was spectacular, and everything had been proudly labelled by the owner – oranges from Israel, apples from New Zealand, cherries from America – everything came from somewhere else. I was deeply impressed at the time – the first glimmerings of the global village back then, I guess. Now I stand in my local Country Market, Beltra, and it gives me huge satisfaction to see the variety and quality of local produce, to know that it comes from within a few miles. It is good to be part of the new (and oh, so old) approach to food that Country Markets epitomises with its message: ‘Buy local – buy Irish – buy well!’ It’s good to be in touch with the food I eat, to know how and where it’s been produced, that the producer has been fairly paid for it, but it hasn’t ‘cost the earth’ in any sense.

Which brings me back to the chickens.
(I’ve been trying to avoid the chickens. As always, I’m uncomfortably on the edge here.)

Like Hugh, I’m very fond of poultry. I have a small flock of them myself.
In fact, I should probably introduce you to Napoleon at this point. You will see for yourself why he’s called Napoleon.

Napoleon and his first wife, Josephine

Isn’t he gorgeous? (He causes my husband more rolling of the eyes, but I know that’s just because he is jealous) Sadly, his first wife, Josephine, pictured beside him, beautifully clad in speckled grey, is no more. But happily a friend supplied Napoleon with a second wife, Marie Louise – very tiny, but every inch the Empress.

The Empress Marie Louise

Apart from the two royals – referred to for some reason by my husband as ‘your babies’ – we have 17 other, lesser creatures – Wellington, his girls and Henrietta. 

Henrietta is an impudent, determined, irascible, bolshy little hen with a will of iron – what you might term ‘a hen with attitude’. Back in the spring, she turned clocky on me. Dreaming of the joys of motherhood, she took to her bed of straw and refused to move. Equally determined, I removed all the eggs and told her that she was wasting her time, keeping a fruitless vigil.

Henrietta Hen

Now, as you may know, it takes just 21 days for an incubated egg to become a chick. Had I known what I was up against, Henrietta would have won hands – or rather, wings-down and we could have saved a lot of time. Instead I held out for 3 long months, at the end of which I felt like a beast and she, thin and bald-tummied, hadn’t once emerged from her empty nest, except when I’d physically thrown her out of it.

I gave in. As a result, she is the proud mother of 6, which is all fine and dandy, except that 4 of them – inevitably – are cockerels. 

Now this is no doubt why I have been dreaming of HF-W, who manifestly believes in giving an animal a marvellous life and then turning it into several marvellous meals. Totally logical. In fact, best practice. So what IS my problem? I just need to start thinking: yum-yum, start calling my cockerels Coq-au-vin, Chasseur, Drumstick and Sunday Roast.

Pathetic idiot that I am, instead of my taste-buds tingling whenever I see them, instead of bisto-whiffs passing beneath my nose, I find myself thinking: who needs meat? Who even likes chicken? Cheese-on-toast is very nice, laced with pickle and mustard
Hugh would definitely not approve. These birds have, after all, lived the life of Reilly – running wild all over my garden, bullying their smaller sisters and daring the cats to one-to-one combat.

I need to take a leaf out of Henrietta’s book and become determined.
I need to overcome this – this chicken-heartedness.
Wellington will certainly not be so lily-livered. If they grow much bigger, he’ll take matters into his own hands. Or the cats will. Or M. Reynard, who nightly prowls the orchard.
Besides, we will get fed up with cheese-on-toast.

Let’s hope that in our brief encounter last night, Hugh gave me a jolly good talking to!


  1. And do you know what you and he carried in your picnic hamper as you ran away together?

    Thank you for your kind comment - I'm in County Galway. And yourself?

  2. No - sadly I don't, but I bet it was delicious! Some of your sourdough bread would have gone down a treat! With the wonderful yoghurt cheese I buy at our market - Lebanese recipe I think.
    I'm in Sligo - a pretty wild Sligo tonight.
    Very nice to hear from you - love your blog - I'm hooked into following!


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