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Hens just wanna have fun

Nick Harman visits a Happy Egg Co farm to see if the hens are really smiling. Al Stuart takes pictures of birds.

There are just a few chickens to be seen in the area outside the hut at the Happy Eggs Co Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire. The farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski reckons it’s because it’s too hot for them to come out, but it might just be because they’re camera shy.

They’ve had a lot of visiting journalists recently. Happy Eggs Co, owned and monitored by Noble Foods, are keen to show just how contented their chickens are and have been issuing invites to the press left, right and centre. So the 14,000 strong chook flock, housed in huts spaced across the 120 acre farm could be excused for having a ‘want to be alone’ moment.

Now of course serious food journalists would spurn such invitations, preferring to drop in totally unannounced or come over the wire at night dressed as anarchists. Well the first option wasn’t really practical for us and the second we dismissed because neither I nor the photographer wanted to get our noses pierced.

So there is the suspicion that, rather like a care home for the elderly warned of an imminent inspection, the managers have sent the moaners and troublemakers off for the day and shoved all the dead bodies into a locked room out of sight.

That’s cynical though. On this brilliant sunny day, the chickens we see do indeed seem very happy, although chickens tend to have a rather malignant expression at the best of times. Those that have braved the 30 degree plus heat outside are making contented ‘book book’ noises and drumming on the toes of our boots with their beaks like Gene Krupa after too much coffee.

‘All these young trees will soon grow to provide lots of lovely shade for them,’ says JP talking about the wild pear and other fruit trees planted in profusion about the shed area. The hen sheds, which resemble something out of Tenko, are themselves large and airy and are regularly dragged, literally, to new locations to give the hens pastures new to peck about in.

Novelty is important to chickens apparently, they are inquisitive creatures JP says, and this explains why structures normally seen in a kids’ playground are dotted about the hens’ large open areas. Chickens it seems, are girls who just wanna have fun.

Each morning the sides of the sheds are flung open and, when it isn’t so very hot, a tsunami of feathers floods out as the hens eagerly get outside to begin their day pecking at the ground, dust bathing and playing with the toys. Research has shown that bored, unhappy hens don’t just have a lower quality of life, they also lay less good eggs too.

In the sheds the smell is, well actually there is very little smell at all thanks to a grating that lets the droppings naturally fall away from the hens’ laying and sleeping areas. The hens are free to come and go as they please all day long and the hut design means that fresh air constantly passes in and up to exit through the top vents so making it pleasantly cool and breezy despite the sun beating on the roof.

The eggs the hens lay here in the semi shade roll gently to the back of the laying area where a small conveyor belt trundles them outside to be placed in boxes. It’s all very calm and the chickens are as docile as family pets; cheerfully nibbling at feed and taking water from the constant supply fed to their small beak-activated drippers.

JP picks up random chickens and strokes them, which they seem to enjoy, and he explains that he can tell the health of the hens from such inspections.  Hens apparently peck at each other when stressed so the feathers look bad and they would not be amenable to being picked up if they weren’t happy.

Of course the elephant in the hen house is what happens when the hens’ laying days are over? Well as you’ve probably guessed they are not given a lethal injection and full military honours burial in a plot overlooking the setting sun, but sold for meat to the far east.

The average life expectancy of a laying hen is fourteen months, when in fact they could live for over fourteen years, but old chickens do not lay satisfactory eggs for the supermarket buyers. JP does try and find the hens a life after lay, but with so many chickens becoming redundant all the time, only a small percentage can ever be rehomed.

Rather sad but the art of farming is one mixing pragmatism with decency. Happy Egg Co farms, as far as we could tell and were shown, are doing everything they can to ensure their hens are properly and ethically treated and the result is better eggs for everyone.

So pay the extra pence for Happy Eggs Co eggs when you’re next out shopping and see if you can taste the difference. Maybe you’ll end up happier too.

This article first appeared on Foodepedia

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Enter the rhubarb triangle

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

No false modesty here

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.

The weigh in

We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated  by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.

I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.

It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing.  Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.

Listen carefully

Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.

It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.

in the pink

With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.

Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.

Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.

£2.50 a packet at source

Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.

That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.

Visit Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm

Find rhubarb recipes

Down on the farm, a visit to Denhay, creators of classic cheddar and brilliant bacon

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Royal connection

More quiche? I don’t mind if I do and perhaps some Dorset Ale? Wonderful. As lunches go this one is pretty near perfect, eaten seated beside a snugly warm Aga in a cosy old farmhouse kitchen while the West Country rain comes down in ropes.

The farm is Denhay Farm and you’ve no doubt seen the name on packs of bacon and cheese in Waitrose. Far from being an advertising invention, like the rather creepy Aunt Bessie or avuncular Mr Kipling, it really is a genuine farm and one that’s belonged in the same family since the 1950s, the latest descendants of the Streatfields having just cooked our quiche. Read more…

From deer to here

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Sign of the times

‘No, I didn’t lose my little finger in a butchery related incident.’ says Chris chef and also butcher at The Pig & Butcher, Islington catching the direction of my gaze and pausing his heavy cleaver in mid-air. ‘I fell down the stairs a few years ago. A stupid accident.’ It’s reassuring to hear because as Will repeatedly thumps down the cleaver small bits of Bambi go flying, some towards me, and I don’t want a stray digit spoiling my day.

He’s busy butchering a Sika, or spotted deer, on site at his meat suppliers, Chart Farm in Sevenoaks. Here the deer are bred for the table and when their time comes, humanely shot. ‘It’s quick,’ says Chris,’ they’re shot in the fields where they live and they don’t know what hit them.’ Indeed as the soft-nosed bullets are supersonic, the shot deer wouldn’t hear the bang, even if the rifles didn’t already use noise suppressors. Read more…

Salt Sugar Smoke: The Definitive Guide to Conserving, from Jams and Jellies to Smoking and Curing- Diana Henry

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Diana Henry is, for my money, the best of our newspaper food writers. Her style is clean and simple, highly readable and to the point. Her book on leftovers Food From Plenty  is one of the most stained in our house, indicating how often it gets used. This book again takes a fascinating subject and runs with it.

Preserving food is one of mankind’s oldest struggles. No matter how good the summer, how healthy the animals, winter was always a time when we lived on what we had stored. In our cupboards and around our muscles. This is why I don’t fear winter, I am well insulated. Back in the day we salted, we smoked, we made jams and we didn’t rely on the often fickle power of electricity. Freezer melt down anyone?

Preserving saves seasonal vegetables in glut to be enjoyed as themselves later, but it also magically transforms things into something else. Relishes, chutneys and mustards for example. And who doesn’t like a home pickled onion? The apple-crispness is a sensatiion shop bought ones never seem to have, perhaps because they use the shortcut of brine and not packed salt, as my father always used to insist on. Read more…

Waldorf Salad: In the garden with Executive Chef Lee Streeton

Chef’s rubber Croc shoes seem at odds with the mud we’re tramping through, but then so are his chef’s whites. ‘I’ve got big plans,’ says Lee Streeton Executive Chef at the spanking new Syon Park Waldorf Astoria Hotel while waving his arms around. ‘This land is mine!’

As veg patches go, it’s already a sizeable one. Courgettes are massed in yellow-flowered profusion. ‘We cook those, they go quick,’ Lee says charging up and down the veg beds in the dwindling light pointing out other plants and herbs growing furiously well in his deep organic beds, all sheltered from the worst of the weather by the hotel’s walls and close presence.

Many chefs these days claim to be pulling produce from the restaurant garden, but if you get a chance to peek outside their restaurants you have to wonder who is kidding who. A patch of herbs and a tomato plant do not a vegetable garden make.

Lee is certainly capable of keeping his customers fed from his. A cynical non-foody might say that’s because his dishes are rather tiny. One tomato can probably make ten plates the way Lee does it. I’m being a bit naughty though because, seriously, Lee’s dishes are examples of fine dining restraint and quality and are about textures and tastes combined with seasonality. Read more…

Simply red. Totally tomatos in Alicante

Mind the step

Anyone stumbling slightly the worse for wear into the lobby in the Hospes Amerigo Hotel might be forgiven for thinking the DTs had set in. Not pink elephants but red globes are everywhere; they’re piled in heaps next to the reception desk, they’re lined up like tubby soldiers on every available spare shelf, they lurk by the lift doors and they offer themselves as trip hazards on the marble stairs. There really are a lot of tomatoes hanging about in this chic converted monastery in Alicante old town.

The reason is simple, Hospes Amerigo is launching a new holiday idea for foodies who also love the sun, ‘Discover the Tomato’. For three days guests can immerse themselves in a local product; seeing how it’s grown, how it’s harvested, how it can be cooked and most importantly how it can be eaten. Read more…