The first time I kept chickens was in a village in Essex – my first experience of keeping animals for food. I had no cockerel, so the girls were purely for their eggs. I could never kill them (From time to time the fox took care of that !) and when I left England I left my remaining chooks to neighbours.
In France, I wanted to have a “real” smallholding, and that meant having chickens and a cock for reproduction. Once I’d got the whole thing up and running, I let my hens sit on their clutch of a dozen or so eggs and 21 days later little miracles started to happen. I had chicks everywhere and this was the start of a long adventure in free-range food.
Even to this day, I love having chickens and their little ones running around our farm. It’s wonderful watching a mother hen do all the things chickens do and teaching her tiny brood to do the same. I feel so sad that these wonderful birds are often seen only as cheap food and that a very large proportion of the eggs consumed in Europe come from battery hens.
Most of the cellophane wrapped birds we’ve all bought and eaten have never had a normal existence either, but live in large hangars like these and have a life of misery.
Unless you’re vegetarian, you need to kill to eat. Killing an animal in the prime of its life is very, very difficult to come to terms with. We’ve four dogs, two cats, and almost a hundred goats and sheep. I nurse them when they’re ill, cuddle and stroke them and we work hard to make sure they’re all well fed, healthy, happy and comfortable. Yet, there are some animals that we choose to kill for food because I feel that being an omnivore – especially in winter – is the best way of feeding myself.
There are some things that make killing my own chickens easier to accept and the most important is that they have had a good life. The second is that when you start raising chicks you often come across a chick that’s not quite perfect or has been injured and sometimes it’s kinder to put it out of it’s misery by breaking it’s neck. (In my case that was the first time I’d ever killed anything – apart from an insect!)
The third is, of course, that about half of the chicks hatched are male and they grow up into cockerels, and some of them will be the underdogs. If they are left in the pecking order with the older and stronger cockerels they’ll be picked on, pecked and ripped by the other cockerels’ feet and literally worried to death.
The fourth is that the females suffer a lot of abuse from a dozen or so young cockerels queuing up in the evening at the chicken shed door. There’s lots of fighting, feathers flying everywhere and the “favourite” hens soon become feeble and go off the lay and may become bald on their backs with open sores leading to infection as a result of all the sexual activity.
If you sit watching the girls “walk the gauntlet” on their way to roost. I guarantee you’ll find it easier to kill your first cockerel. (Especially if you’re a woman!)
OUR METHOD OF KILLING CHICKENS – It’s obviously best to see this being done by someone who is experienced, so that you have the confidence to do it properly first time.
Start boiling a big pot of water and prepare clean bowls for the liver and heart another for the blood, feet and head and another for the innards.
For killing you’ll need a very sharp pointed knife and a small mallet for stunning.
Go down to the chicken shed and lift your chosen chickens from their perch before the start of their day and put them into a cage or cardboard box with air holes. Leave the box outside the kitchen door.
One person lifts a chicken out and takes it into the kitchen holding the legs together, and the wings together in the other hand – gently but very firmly placing the chicken’s head horizontally. The other person quickly hits the chicken with the mallet on the head. The head should drop if the chicken has been properly stunned. Now grasp the head in one hand and push the pointed knife into the chicken’s neck, through the jugular vein. The blood should flow easily into your receptacle and the chicken will be dead in seconds although it will flutter and shake and needs to be held very firmly until it stops moving.
Some people use killing funnels which make the job easier for one person and restrain the bird but I find it difficult to stun the birds properly and we don’t like shoving them into the cones but everyone has their own method – do whatever you feel comfortable with.
Keep holding the bird firmly until there is no sign of life, and then lay it down near where you’ll be plucking. (We use a bin for the feathers and pluck over the fireplace)
Go and get you next bird, and by the time you’ve finished killing several birds your water should be boiling. Bring the pot over to the fire, resting a corner on the hot ashes or a gas burner to keep it warm if you have a lot of birds to do.
Hold the chicken by the feet and submerge it for a minute or so, moving it around gently. Take the bird out and strip off bunches of feathers very quickly while the skin is still hot, because you dip only once. (Doing it again will only cook the skin and the pores will close) With practice, you can pluck a bird in a few minutes. When you’ve finished plucking, singe the fine hairs on the skin either over a gas ring or go over each bird with a plumber’s blowtorch (air entry closed!).
TO EMPTY THE BIRDS
Cut the skin of the neck close to the shoulders all the way round and pull it up towards the head. Twist the head round – it should be easy to pull off.
Turn the bird and cut around the anus, being careful not to puncture the colon. Make a slit from above the anus up to the bird’s breast, put your hand in and gently ease all out the innards. They should come out in one piece, but you may have to fish around for the heart and liver. Take everything out and check that it’s healthy and intact.
Separate the gall bladder (the small green sack) from the liver being careful not to puncture the sack which contains a bitter fluid which will taint the meat. Put the livers and heart in a small bowl. (for pâté)
Score the gizzard (Photo on the right) half way around the outside and cut in a little – just enough to get a fingernail in to prise it open and remove the contents (stones, grass, insects and grain) along with the hard skin which should peel off easily. Put the gizzards aside with the liver to make “salade de gèsiers”.
Take off the feet by bending them at the knee, slitting the sinews and cutting the skin with a sharp knife. We put the feet, head and any clean waste into our dogs’ dinner – a soup which we add to their kibble. We feed the innards and all waste to our Larsen trap magpies or use them as bait for live traps for foxes etc. (Fabrice is a registered trapper.) You can either burn or bury them under trees and bushes if you really can’t find another use.
Wash or wipe the birds and prepare them for the freezer or stuff them ready for the oven or for cooking in a casserole. The gizzards, liver and other sweetmeats can be left in the ‘fridge or somewhere cool for a day or so until you’re ready to use them.
Sweep the floor, brush all the feathers into the fire or put them on your “soft fruit” compost, wipe the kitchen table and congratulate yourself on a good morning’s work !