Commonly Asked Questions about Yellow House Farmís Heritage Poultry
Commonly Asked Questions about Yellow House Farm’s Heritage Poultry
One of the great culinary treasures that so easily enhances the quality of our cookery is heritage poultry. Rich in flavor and toothsome, in texture, it varies from exceptionally fine-grained, e.g. Houdan or Dorking chicken breast meat, to more course grained fare, as in that enjoyed from Narragansett turkey breast. Aside from the these delicious staples of the American kitchen, heritage duck and goose are de rigueur classics that simply must be explored by all those wanting to enrich their palates and flatter family and friends with easily prepared, yet exquisite, delicacies. And, not to be forgotten is the subtly rich flavor of the guinea fowl, or faraona, meaning little Pharaoh, which is a secret worthy of anyone’s Dutch oven.
The following are reflections on the various aspects of heritage poultry meat that are of special note. This is by no means an exhaustive discourse nor a finished product, per se, for I am sure that time will bring new experiences to flesh out these preliminary musings. Still, it is a beginning in the attempt to answer the many questions that we at Yellow House Farm are often asked, as we all rediscover the joys of heritage poultry in our kitchens.
What makes “Heritage Poultry” heritage poultry?
Well, this may not be the silly question that it may at first seem. There is a lively debate among poulterers as to what a proper definition might be. As in all debates of definitive nature, there are varying degrees of micromanagement, depending on the source consulted. Frank Reese, a heritage poulterer from the mid-West offers the following in conjunction with other currently prominent thinkers in the heritage farming world:
Heritage Chicken must adhere to the following:
1. APA Standard Breed--Heritage Chicken must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; and with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed. Heritage eggs must be laid by an APA Standard breed.
2. Naturally mating--Heritage Chickens must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating. Chickens marketed as "heritage" must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
3. Long productive outdoor lifespan--Heritage Chicken must have the genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life and thrive in the rigors of pasture-based, outdoor production systems. Breeding hens should be productive for five to seven years and roosters for three to five years.
4. Slow growth rate--Heritage Chicken must have a moderate to slow rate of growth, reaching appropriate market weight for the breed in no less than 14 weeks. This gives the chicken time to develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.
In principle, there is much to be said for this argument. Indeed, it fits, more or less, the conservation goals of Yellow House Farm. However, it should be stated that, although the notion of "heritage breed" is safely attached to the mandate of the American Poultry Association, the fixing of a specific cut-off date is, perhaps, a bit dubious. An exceedingly sound argument could be made for the sole inclusion of foundational breeds pre-dating the mid-1800’s or even earlier. Thus, in the interest of avoiding all sorts of opinionated silliness, we at Yellow House Farm are contented to state more simply that heritage poultry must be an APA Standard breed and leave it neatly at that.
Why is dark meat dark and white meat white? Why is supermarket meat only white?
Well, darkness of poultry meat comes from age and use, especially use. The more a muscle is used, the darker and more lubricated (i.e. oily) it will be.
Chickens, turkeys and other pheasant-type fowl are non-migratory creatures that prefer to run, as opposed to fly, away from danger. They do fly, however, rather well, but tend toward quick bursts of speedy flight heading for the nearest thicket in which the intention is to hide out until the danger has past. Otherwise, the only flight in their daily routine is to and from their nightly perch up on a secure tree branch or, for domesticated poultry, in the coop or barn. Consequently, they never truly develop those breast (flight) muscles, which remain white. Their, legs and thighs, however darken nicely, often becoming so dark that one can see the darkness of their flesh right through their skin.
Ducks and geese, on the other hand, are accomplished aviators, making yearly migrations over long distances. Moreover, they are busy swimmers, paddling the day away in search of yummy bits. It is understood, thereby, that they develop both their breasts and leg/thigh muscles rather thoroughly. Hence, duck and goose meat is all dark.
Considering the aforementioned trend in turkeys and chickens to have dark, toothsome legs and thighs, why is it that factory-type meat chickens (Cornish-crosses) and big white monster turkeys (the broad breasted type) possess ever whiter and mushier leg meat? Well, in the push to become fatter and fatter more and more quickly, an alarmingly high percentage of factory-type meat chickens and turkeys lose the desire (and often the ability) to move about, staying closely positioned to their food hoppers in an attempt to cram their stomachs with the feed needed to fuel a body developing at rudely unnatural rates. The result is leg and thigh muscles that never attain their natural tone or rich flavor. Current marketing trends are busy trying to sell us on “All White Meat” as a means to keep us from discovering that modern chickens and turkeys are nothing more than pathetic veal-poultry. What is the answer to this sad development? Heritage poultry.
Why does Yellow House Farm heritage poultry sometimes have little dark feathers close to the skin?
Well, feathers tend to grow in over long periods of time. Subsequently, there are only specific periods at which a plucked bird will be completely free of feathers. Commonly, there are tiny little feathers, referred to as pin-feathers still lodged in the skin. Does this matter? Not in the least. Usually, commercial birds are white feathered, which eliminates the visibility of pin-feathers.
The only difficulty with using only white feathered birds for meat production is that the vast majority of varieties of fowl are colored, rather beautifully colored. When they are not used for production, this neglect leads to their ultimate demise and extinction. Here at Yellow House Farm, our first goal is the preservation of these fine, lovely breeds of traditional poultry. Thus, we and hopefully our customers, too, will come to accept the presence of pin-feathers as an expression of each bird’s unique beauty.
Learning to overlook pin-feathers is a key point of heritage poultry survival.
What do the terms broiler, fryer, roaster and fowl, actually mean?
Well, these terms were traditionally used to refer to chickens in their various stages of development. Strictly speaking, they are references to age and not to size. A broiler is a young chicken, usually a cockerel of the traditional egg-laying varieties, slaughtered by twelve or thirteen weeks of age, at which point they are still tender enough to be cooked under the intense, dry heat of the broiler oven. This is real chicken veal. They tend to be outstandingly tender if not the most richly flavored.
Fryers are birds butchered between fourteen and twenty weeks, more or less, they tend still to be tender enough to be fried, hence the name.
Roasters are those birds butchered usually between 4 and 9 months of age. They have more size and are generally meatier that fryers. They are, however, at this point too strong of muscle, i.e. tough, to be fried. They are slowly roasted, often in a Dutch oven or other appropriate covered roaster, until tender and delicious. Usually, roasters are more flavorful than both broilers and fryers.
Fowl is the term given to all poultry over a year old. At this point the muscles of the birds are too strong to be simply thrown on the grill. The exposure to such raw heat will cause the muscles to contract, thus toughening the meat up in the expression of a flexed muscle. Whenever one hears of “tough” poultry meat, one knows that the bird in question was cooked too quickly and at too hot a temperature. Remember the term: Low and Slow. Moreover, fowl needs a wet preparation. These are the braising fowls of times gone by: coq au vin, pollo al cacciatore, fricassee, all of these richly flavorful dishes were created to utilize traditional farm fowl. Moreover, Nonna’s chicken soup came from fowl.
Are ducks and geese really fatty?
Well the answer is “yes” and “no”. Our domesticated ducks and geese are creatures of the Northern Hemisphere. They are evolved to inhabit places with colder, even inhospitable, temperatures. Often one sees flights of ducks and geese napping lazily in the dead of winter at the mouths of rivers flowing into the sea. Their natural fat deposits allow them to weather this weather rather swimmingly.
On the other hand, most commercial ducks and geese are raised as “green” ducklings and goslings, which means that they are stuffed with protein for a month or so and then stuffed with fatty foods for an equal period of time. Lights remain on twenty-four hours a day to enable constant consumption, and then they’re ushered off to the slaughter, obese and oily.
What can one do, then, to avoid that less than savory image? Well, only eat free-range heritage ducks and geese that are allowed to develop more slowly over a longer period of time. They will be much less fatty and much more flavorful.
Why is heritage poultry smaller than factory produced poultry?
Well, most factory-type poultry has been genetically engineered over the last half-century to be shockingly oversized. A mixture of marketing and bad habit has shaped our culture into a conglomerate of megalomaniacal eaters obsessed with ever bigger portions. As time has passed, with few of us ever seeing a naturally proportioned bird, we have become conditioned to accept these mutants as normal. They are, however, not.
Those large, even round breasted chickens and turkeys are anything but natural. Indeed, most are now incapable of reliable natural reproduction. This does, of course, mean that almost every bit of turkey we eat nowadays is the product of artificial insemination, i.e. a worker is paid to extract semen from thugly, unnaturally proportioned male birds in order to be inserted into equally thugly and disproportionate female birds for the mass production of yet another generation of mutant fowl touted to be the traditional fowl of your great-grandmother’s day. Sadly, our great-grandmothers would not recognize most of what most of us eat today. From a heritage farmer’s perspective, these foul fowl are pathetic at best and at worst rather icky.
On the other hand, heritage fowl are possessed of natural and healthful proportions, being fully capable of naturally perpetuating themselves into the future for yet another generation’s nutrition and enjoyment. Moreover, one might add that the smaller portion size will do most of us a lot of good.
Why does Yellow House Farm heritage poultry taste so good?
We are truly pleased to hear so much positive feedback about our poultry. The response has been overwhelming, which is also rather exciting for the survival of these rare breeds. One of the questions we are most often asked is why does Yellow House Farm meat taste so good.
Well, there are a couple reasons for this. First of all, flavor develops with age and use, a rather poetic image it would seem. The older a bird is at time of slaughter and the healthier and more natural the environment in which it lives, the richer its flavor will be when it comes to the table. Hereby, it is fairly safe to argue that all heritage breeds will taste better than factory hybrids on the simple account that they have in general lived out a longer, more natural, more satisfying existence.
Still, not all birds are created equal. Here at Yellow House Farm we have carefully selected birds to meet various criteria. To begin with, they are rare and in need of conservation efforts. Several of our birds are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste: the American Buff goose, the Cayuga duck, and the Narragansett turkey.
Our chickens, too, have been selected with great care. When consulting texts regarding the traditional breeds of chicken, five breeds are consistently mentioned as being those of superior quality: the Dorking, the Houdan, the Crevecoeur, the La Fleche, and the Old English Game. They are all recognized for their fine-grained flesh, with special note given to the extreme whiteness of their breast meat. They are fine-boned and exceptionally juicy. Indeed, from experience and from the feedback of many customers. One hasn’t tasted good chicken until one has tasted these five breeds.
It should be noted that we cannot take any credit for their deliciousness. These breeds have existed for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Perhaps, it could be asserted that there is a reason for this. Interestingly, none of these breeds were suited to the heavily stressful conditions of commercial poultry factories. Thus, flavor was sacrificed in the name of raw profitability and the rest of us have had to make do with ersatz alternatives.
We are grateful to be able to reintroduce these delicacies to your table.
What is a guinea fowl?
Well, guinea fowl are a type of sub-Saharan pheasant. You have probably often seen them on nature specials with views of watering holes. In Italian, they are called faraona, meaning little pharaoh. This would seem to be a more beautiful name. They have been celebrated for millennia; indeed some of our oldest references to this delicacy go back to ancient Greece. Nevertheless, whether you call them guineas fowl or faraona, you’ll assuredly call them delicious!
If our heritage breeds are almost extinct, why are we butchering them for market?
This is a very good question, indeed. The answer comes when we consider more deeply the raison d’etre of the farm fowl. These birds exist to be farmed. When not actively farmed, they fall into oblivion.
In the traditional cycle, many are hatched; the best go on to become the new breeders, while the inferior stock heads to market. In this way, the breed is strengthened with every year. All birds are not created equal. A relatively small percentage of hatchlings matures to embody the finest qualities of each breed. Only these select birds should be saved to produce the following year’s generation. The rest are culled to market. It goes, then, that the more any one farmer is able to hatch, the greater his chances of obtaining high quality breeders, subsequently, the more culls he will have for his customers’ tables.
The alternative is the ultimate degradation and extinction of the breed.
Why is heritage poultry so much more expensive that factory-type poultry?
Well, in an eggshell, it takes two to three times as long for heritage poultry to reach market size. Moreover, they cannot be raised in such highly concentrated, read cramped, conditions as factory-type birds. In extension to this, they tend to be raised in a more free-range situation in which they are expected to find a larger portion of their daily diet. This, of course, is yet another reason that signifies that they cannot be overly concentrated in their environment. The result is a higher quality product that can only be raised in a limited number which drives up the ultimate price of each bird.
We remember the famed wish for "a chicken on every table". This came from a time when chicken wasn’t the simple throw-away commodity that it is today. At that time, chicken was more costly, but it was much better chicken. The price of cheap chicken has been cheap chicken.
Can I afford heritage poultry?
Well, I suppose the reality is that there are, and will always be, those with greater and lesser buying power than ourselves. I say this, of course, as a poor teacher turned poorer farmer, who has never owned a new car and probably never will, who buys a new pair of reasonably priced jeans only when I really can no longer ignore with any decency that ever widening hole in the old pair, and who thinks that brand names are for special occasions. However, gross is gross, and if we can avoid it, that’s not a bad thing.
One way to look at the picture is to consider the way we use chicken and other poultry. Nowadays, we can buy inexpensive family packs of mutant bits at prices so cheap that we can forget about them on the bottom shelf and only ceremoniously mourn for the waste of product when we discover the fowl origin of that foul odor coming from the vague direction of the refrigerator. On the other hand, in the old days, one bought whole birds to avoid any sort of waste, and, of course, purchasing whole birds avoided elevated prices due to any further processing such as the cutting up of the birds. Then one portioned the bird out for various dishes. We think of pot pies, chicken salad or duck salad sandwiches, made from the leftovers of the original roast or braise. Then, of course, there were the myriad soups and risottos made from the healthy stock that was always made from the carcass. When looked at this way, every bird should represent two to three meals. When one divides the original cost over the many meals, it seems less burdensome.
Ultimately, the only way for all of us to have huge portions of meat every night of the week will be to rely uniquely on factory-type meat produced in factories with factory methodologies. The alternative is to enjoy healthier, more delicious meat in smaller portions a few times a week, being grateful for great food.