Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chicken & Eggs - Mark Diacono

After a very hectic few weeks I'm finally sitting in a reasonably tidy flat, awake, and happy in the knowledge that absolutely nothing needs washing. I've even put away all the books that came out of my bedroom when I redecorated, and yes, that's taken me five weeks to do - anyway it feels good to be relatively organised, so good that more organisation might be called for.

All of which sort of brings me round to 'Chicken & Eggs', I might have mentioned (a lot of times) that I'm a big fan of the River Cottage handbooks so despite living in a second floor city centre flat a book that dealt with chicken keeping was a must (although there's much more to it than that). As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall points out in his introduction to the book the way we eat chicken and the way we treat chickens makes for a neat illustration of the current debates around food. When I was a child we kept chickens, we had a happy habitat for them - a large garden free of anything they could damage and short on neighbours for them to annoy - my sister and I enjoyed feeding them and loved collecting eggs. We also had sheep so Sunday roasts were generally chicken or lamb, but it was a Sunday thing only. This week I had an egg on Monday, Tuesday was chicken for lunch, more chicken for dinner. There was chicken on Wednesday, and chicken again tonight, it's more than probable that chicken will feature in some form on Friday and Saturday too because it's hard to avoid in the work canteen. This week is a little unusual because I'm emptying out my freezer (next week it'll mostly be what I think are pheasants) but it's not that unusual which when I stop and think about it is shocking.

Chicken is so ubiquitous, and so cheap, that a moments reflection suggests that the welfare standards for some of the meat I'm eating can't be as high as I would like. With eggs it's less problematical, both the egg itself (with codes that the book handily explains) and the boxes are clearly labelled, any supermarket will offer a free range organic option and the price difference is not so huge that it's a deal breaker even on my limited budget. Meat is a different matter - not the reassuringly expensive free range bird I might buy to roast, but the 'basics' or 'essentials' pack of wings that are so nice cooked in loads of lemon and basil, or any of the many boxes of salad, or the sandwiches, or the take-away; where does it all come from? Now I have actually spent some time thinking about it, it's definitely something to be better organised about.

Back to 'Chicken & Eggs' and I'll start with a quick list of all the things I really like about this book. The first has to be that as well as being about the chickens you might keep it's also about the eggs and meat that you'll still buy which makes it feel altogether relevant even if you can't (or don't want to) keep chickens, the recipe section obviously works regardless of where the ingredients come from. I love the practical advice about plucking, gutting, boning, and generally preparing the birds - pheasants and partridges are much cheaper to buy in feather during game season (although plucking a bird is the kitchen job I'm most squeamish about and have so far avoided) it's helpful to have a clear guide with pictures to help tackle these things. It's also a beautiful book to look at - I've never seen an obviously dead chicken look as good as it does here Mark Diacono isn't just a good writer (and he is a good writer; clear, informative, interesting, and witty) he's a gifted photographer. Finally, and as with his earlier titles for the series (allotments and fruit) there is a lot of very practical advice about getting set up and how to work out what you want.

I know there are plenty of books about chicken keeping out there and as I haven't had cause to read them I don't know if this one is the best or not, however I don't think a non chicken keeper could do better than this, and I do think every (non vegetarian) kitchen probably needs a copy - partly for the excellent recipes, partly because reading it (and who knew that reading about chicken ailments could be so interesting?) raised questions for me about how and what I eat which are important. Finally, as a book it's just a really nice object - perfect size, lovely feel, lots of information, and great pictures.

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