Heirloom Poultry, I Love You

“Chicken doesn’t taste like chicken anymore.” So goes the common refrain of people older and wiser than me, people who grew up eating chicken before the advent of the industrial chicken farm. I was born in the late 70s and did all my growing up in the 80s. By then, chicken was pretty standard.

Up until a few years ago, I didn’t know what the old-timers were talking about. Then I tasted my first pastured chicken, an Americauna. What hit me was a totally different chicken dining experience. Oh, I could tell that it was chicken. But the similarities ended there. The chicken actually tasted happy. I kid you not.

That’s why when I read this recent article in The Atlantic, I thought: YES! A news story that gets it.

Beyond the world of organic chicken, even beyond the world of “pastured chicken,” is the world of heirloom chickens. These are heritage breeds. They take longer to grow, and they really should be grown out on pasture. But they’re what chicken was before the industrialization of our food supply in the 1950s.

From the article:

It wasn’t until recently that I tasted chicken for what it truly is: a delicate meat that has a sense of terroir, not unlike wine or olives or chocolate. The meat on your plate reflects the bird’s life—its breed, what it was fed, how it lived, even the way it was loved (or not) by the farmer. Raising a good chicken, I’ve learned, is an art.

My chicken education took place recently thanks to Slow Food Toronto, which had organized a heritage chicken tasting at Victor Restaurant and Bar to compare four breeds that are now almost extinct, each prepared four different ways: roasted, pan-seared, braised, and as a broth. By sampling these rare birds, we were making a statement against industrial food—and eating to preserve the diversity of our food system.

Our guide for the afternoon was Carrie Oliver of the Artisan Poultry Institute, a small, California-based organization that aims to transform our understanding of meat by educating the public about its tastes and terroir. As the first plates of roasted chicken were served, she urged us to record our impressions. Was the texture tough, or merely chewy? Did it have a good bite, or was it mealy? What was the personality of the chicken? Reserved? Straightforward, or adventurous? Then there were the flavor notes, which were so diverse it was hard to believe a chicken could have these characteristics: citrus, baked clams, mushrooms, blood, barnyard, pheasant, liver, umami, caramel, corn, and many more.

Go read the whole thing. It’ll make your mouth water.

(photo by brioso)

This post is participating in today’s Real Food Wednesday carnival.


  1. says

    I thought I hated turkey until I convince my mom to let me order an heirloom bird from a local farm and cook it myself. Turkey is amazing! I did one for Christmas this year since my aunt and cousin insisted on doing the Thanksgiving turkey this year.

    I had friends over for a dinner party and served roasted chicken one night. I had gotten the bird from a local farmer since she had just killed chickens the previous day. When my guests raved about the flavor and asked what I had put on it, my response was “Um… salt.”
    .-= Jenn´s last blog post …Tales from the Snowpolcalypse =-.

  2. says

    I grew up like most people eating the same spiritless chicken and not really ever getting very excited about it. Then in high school I was invited to a potluck at a professor’s house where she served her homegrown chicken roasted (slaughtered the day before) – it fell off the bone and was so flavorful. Since that day I don’t even bother ordering/eating chicken unless it’s come off a pasture! I’ve never tried heirloom poultry, but I can’t wait to!
    .-= Sarah´s last blog post …A Likeness of Mt. Duppa =-.

    • says

      Check with your farmer. You may be eating heritage breeds and not even realizing it yet. A lot of farmers who do pastured poultry pick heritage breeds to raise b/c they’re so well adapted to living and eating out on a pasture.

      • Amy says

        Sadly a great many folks raising “pastured chickens” are still raising non-heritage breeds, that fatten in 8-10 weeks, so it is good to ask. Pastured is great, but if it’s not heritage it’s still an unhealthy animal in many respects.

        A chicken that fattens to butcher weight in only 8-10 weeks is like having a toddler that weighs 300 pounds, even if it’s in a field of grass. It’s good they only live that long, for many start to have health issues associated with that kind of weight gain, like heart issues, and digestive issues…even if the grain is organic or they are on pasture. An animal/bird is far more healthy when it’s allowed to gain weight at a rate that it’s frame and organs can support. The health of the chicken is not just about diet.

  3. says

    Ah, yes, there is a difference! I can’t wait to get my hands on some heirloom chicks and start raising my own pastured poultry. I had pastured duck for lunch today and pastured pork chops for dinner. The difference in taste is remarkable! Thanks for highlighting this article, Kristen.
    .-= Cathy Payne´s last blog post …A Simple Plan for Healthy Food! =-.

  4. Jen says

    We purchased several pastured chickens from an Amish farm recently, and my husband and I were amazed at the wonderful taste! They are so good, that I can’t really describe it. I don’t know if they are heritage breeds, but I know I will never go back to regular chicken again!!!

  5. Tamara says

    OMG, while being buried under all this snow in the DC area, ALL ive been craving is some pastured chicken! This post confirms my craving, lol.

  6. says

    If you tweet, you can and should follow Carrie Oliver: @CarrieOliver

    My youngest asked for roast chicken for her birthday meal last year. It’s her favorite food. My middle girl asked how I cook it so yummy so I showed her: Open package, rinse, put in baking pan, cook. She was shocked that mom didn’t have any “secrets” but none are needed! Our pastured poultry producer does all the work!
    .-= Local Nourishment´s last blog post …Super Bowl Sunday food =-.

  7. Alex says

    yep….fell in love with REAL CHICKEN visiting a rural town in France…lucky for me we have a great local organic farm for eggs and chicken…the difference is amazing…my mother complained when i told her i paid $80 for the thanksgiving turkey–but she shut her mouth once she tasted it! :)

  8. says

    I started raising my own birds to be able to eat heritage poultry. Most nights that we eat chicken it is a Buff Orpington, the one described as”buttery” in the article. Some nights we enjoy a Dorking, which won the National taste test put on by a National Poultry group. Yes, chicken is good eating at my house, and I’ll never go back.

  9. says

    What a great article, thanks so much for sharing. We raise Chantecler’s – the only Canadian breed – and love them. They are great, hardy birds, good egg layers and oh so tasty. I won’t eat chicken that isn’t raised naturally.
    .-= Heidi´s last blog post …Work!?!?!? =-.

  10. says

    Do you have any California based suppliers for heirloom chicks? Thank you for this article… until recently, I’m in the middle of reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” I had no idea there was such a thing as an heirloom breed, much less what the importance of it was…. thanks for getting the word out.

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