The pecking order: is free-range tastier than other chicken?
Kosher birds raised humanely are now on sale. But do they taste better? By Leon Symons
FREE- RANGE chickens are now being sold for the first time by kosher butchers in London and Manchester. They have appeared as a result of a Channel 4 television series, Hugh’s Chicken Run, in which television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall set out to persuade the poultry-buying public that they should be eating free-range birds rather than the intensively reared version — those kept beak-byjowl in large sheds and sold at two-fora-fiver in our supermarkets.
The public response persuaded Stephen Grossman, of kosher meat distributor Lewco-Pak, that Jewish customers were also clamouring for humanely reared, free-range birds. So Anglo-Jewry’s biggest poultry abattoir, based in Bedfordshire, linked up with a local farmer to rear birds for the kosher market.
But is there a difference in taste between the cheaper, intensively reared chickens and the pricier free-range variety? The JC’s editorial department decided to put them to the test.
We bought four whole birds of similar size, all around 1.9kg (4.2lbs): two free-range birds, which were on sale at £5.79 a kilo, and two conventional chickens, priced at £3.20 a kilo.
They were roasted in the same way, with a rub of extra-virgin olive oil and for approximately the same time, before being brought before the panel for a blind tasting.
Travel editor Jan Shure judged that chicken A tasted like a classic ordinary bird, while chicken B was much moister and tastier. News editor Jenni Frazer agreed: “Chicken B was much firmer and had a better taste altogether.”
Managing editor Richard Burton expanded: “Chicken B was not as dry as chicken A. I could eat a lot more of chicken B because it was more moist.” Art editor Karen Silver took a similar view: “It’s more succulent.”
Food-page editor Simon Round admitted candidly that he was finding it difficult to tell the difference between the two. So there was surprise when he announced: “But I know which one is free range and which is conventional.”
He revealed he had snapped a leg bone in half. “You can tell the differ- ence, because the intensively reared bird’s bone will snap easily but the free-range one won’t. Its bones are much stronger because it has been allowed to run outside and develop normally.”
The JC panel had mostly decided that they preferred the favour of chicken B. Yet this was the intensively reared bird. This came as no surprise to Stephen Grossman: “People tend to go for what they are used to,” he said, “and free- range has a stronger flavour and a firmer texture.”
So why has there never been freerange kosher before? “There has never been a demand before. Free-range is more of an emotional connection between the food you eat and how it gets to your plate, how it is reared and cared for, how it lives. This is also in line with the Jewish ethos about the care and welfare of animals we kill for food.”
Free-range chickens may live better lives than their conventionally reared counterparts — but did our panel prefer them?