Tuesday, August 16, 2016

APA Flock Inspection program

With increased interest in heritage breed poultry, the American Poultry Association is stepping up to promote standard breeds. Its new Flock Certification Program will certify consumer chicken and other poultry with the APA’s imprimatur.
“We have come to grips with how we will inspect for market quality and how the flock matches the standard,” said Dave Anderson, APA president.
Not every chicken with a Standard name will make a good, productive flock. Hatchery stock may have unacceptable defects. Birds bred for exhibition may have lost their productivity. Chickens are more than pretty feathers.
“They need to have good muscle development, fertility, and egg production,” said Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. “This program should help people improve quality and production of these birds.”
In the past, the APA inspected flocks, but abandoned that responsibility 50 years ago. Commercial poultry farms overwhelmed smaller Standard breed flocks after World War II. The chicken meat business turned to genetically similar industrially developed chickens, which are unable to mate and reproduce naturally. They grow to market size in six to seven weeks. If allowed to grow to maturity, they are hardly able even to walk. Their underdeveloped immune systems can’t protect them against even ordinary diseases.
Modern hybrids with flashy names such as Freedom Ranger and Golden Nugget have been developed to take advantage of the market for chickens that are raised in better conditions. They may be raised on pasture and fed an organic diet, but their genetics doom them. They may have unseen internal abnormalities such as cardiac and skeletal problems.
"Chickens have several serious welfare problems that come from bad genetics and can be fixed only with good genetics," animal welfare advisor Temple Grandin wrote in her book, Animals Make Us Human.
Standard breeds have recognizable identity and documented history. Reviving the inspection program in the 21st century will help standard breed producers justify the higher prices their products deserve.
The APA Standard of Perfection lists all the breeds that have been described and officially recognized for exhibition at poultry shows. That’s about 50 different breeds in hundreds of varieties. The first Standard was published in 1874. Dates are given for every recognized breed.
This Brahma rooster is historically a meat breed.
That original Standard was written to improve the quality, uniformity and marketability of poultry flocks. Over the years, its emphasis changed to focus on poultry exhibitions. Utility became an afterthought, although the Standard still lists Economic Qualities in its breed descriptions.
‘Standard’ is the operant word, meaning breeds that have been documented and officially recognized. Heritage, historic, traditional, antique, heirloom and other words are descriptive, but their meanings vary slightly and can be stretched and distorted to cover anything. ‘Standard’ is a word with a defined meaning: If the breed wasn’t in the Standard before 1950, it can’t get the certification.
APA qualified judges will inspect flocks for their adherence to the APA written Standard.
“The birds must have the general conformation of their breed,” said Mr. Anderson. “The flock cannot have more than two percent significant disqualifications such as roach back. The flock has to have less than 15 percent minor variations from the standard, such as the wrong eye color or side sprigs on the comb. Of course, the entire flock has to be healthy.”
APA poultry judge Butch Gunderson examines the head of a Buff Cochin at a show.
Judge-inspectors can offer advice to help the producer improve his flock. They can help the farmer pick out the best birds for breeding. Their knowledge, and that of the Standard breed producers they inspect, will help USDA inspectors learn how to grade Standard-bred birds.
“They are not just coming to judge your birds,” said Mr. Reese. “They are coming to help you. It should be a learning experience.”
Mr. Reese is the leading Standard breed poultry producer in the country. He currently supplies Emmer & Co. with up to 2,000 chickens every three weeks and Heritage Foods USA with 500 every three weeks. He raises Barred Rock and New Hampshire chickens, Bronze and Narragansett turkeys, and other poultry.
Mr. Reese, in cooperation with the Livestock Conservancy and others, has developed a Heritage Breed definition that relies on the APA Standard. His label has been approved by the USDA and goes on each bird packaged and sold. Thus far, he is the only producer whose label has USDA approval.
“The APA will offer a stamp like the USDA to help consumers make their choices,” Mr. Anderson said.
Certification assures the purchaser that the product they are buying meets certain standards. The USDA’s Certified Organic label is the best known. Certifications increase product value. The Certified Organic label has been so successful in increasing the return to producers that major retailers claim it, not always honestly. Fraud and lack of clarity as to standards have resulted in some erosion of its value, but it remains a significant contributor to farm income and consumer trust. Labels are so important to consumers and influential on the prices they are willing to pay that in some areas, such as fish, fraudulently mislabeling is common.
Emmer & Co. can’t keep up with the demand. Reese is raising as many birds as he can for them and works with other producers to increase the supply.
“These are true, authentic Standard bred chickens,” Reese said. “If you will breed them to meet the standards, you will have a marketable animal,”

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Cooking heritage chickens --by the season

As summer draws to a close, farmers look toward the harvest. Traditionally, the family would work in the fields and enjoy cool chicken salads for lunch, fried chicken for dinner. As fall unfolded, chicken stew would warm the family.

The chicken on the menu from traditional breed flocks is different from the pale plastic-wrapped meat now sold at the supermarket. Particular dishes are best with chickens of different ages and breeds. Some knowledge is needed to cook them well.

“There’s no such thing as tough meat,” Joseph Marquette of Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire, http://yellowhousefarmnh.com/, tells students in the eco-gastronomy program at the Eco-Gastronomy program at the University of New Hampshire. “Only bad cooking.”

He mellows that to say, “Perhaps inappropriate cooking.” The time and temperature have to be appropriate to the age and strength of the chicken, to avoid so much heat that the strong muscles of well-developed chickens flex instead of relaxing as they cook. Low temperature and long cooking times can cook any well-raised chicken to heavenly splendor.

“Progression in strength is a progression in age and progression in season,” he says. “Flavor increases with age.”

Professional chefs have discovered traditional breed chickens. Steve Pope, a chef working with Frank Reese’s Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, gets frequent inquiries for the ranch’s poultry. Events such as the First Annual Heritage Chicken Cooking Competition held n April 2010 help spread the word. The contest attracted 823 entries and judges of national stature.

 “Chefs understand that they can use the whole bird in all their creations,” he says. “They are putting their signature on their creations.”

A small family flock of 50 birds of a single breed could provide plenty of meat for a family for a year, and sustain the flock into the following year. Chicks would hatch in March, April and May, and be culled as they grow. For the table, chickens progress from broilers to fryers, next to roasters, and after that to stewing fowl. The farmer would plan on keeping a dozen hens and two cockerels for the next breeding season. That leaves 36 from that hatching season, plus older birds, for the table.

The first birds culled are the ones with the most obvious faults, that the breeder would not consider breeding. They might be culled as early as four weeks, although usually they grow to be eight to 13 weeks old. The youngest birds, in French cuisine, are called poussin (pr. poosang). Technically, this is what all industrial supermarket chicken is, killed at 42-60 days old. Even flavorful traditional breeds don’t have enough time to acquire much flavor in that short a time.

 The meat of older traditional breed birds raised in small flocks is darker because the birds are stronger. Better developed muscles also become more oily, so that they work well, carrying the bird through the daily routine of scratching and pecking. Because of their ancestry as upland game birds, chickens prefer to run from their predators, and only fly up to their roosts. They develop dark meat legs and thighs, and light breast meat.

“When you have a healthy, strong, able bodied bird, its muscles are strong, dark and well lubricated,” he says. “Muscles only seldom used are light and have little lubrication.”

Up until 13 weeks of age, the birds are so young that their muscles won’t flex and cook tough, even when cooked under the intense heat of the broiler. Hence, their name. Broilers can also be fried and prepared other ways, but their significant characteristic is that they can be cooked hot and fast and still be tender.

Birds can be considered fryers from 13 to 20 weeks, with the ideal age being around 16 weeks. They can be cut up and pan fried, another high heat cooking method. They can be spatchcocked: cut in half, the backbone and sternum removed and the half-bird flattened, then grilled that way. Keep the bird away from the heat, to grill at 275-300 degrees.

Sixteen weeks is also a good time to take a serious look at culling the breeding flock. Quicker growing Anconas, Leghorns and Andalusians will show obvious flaws by then. You’ll want to give slower growing Dorkings and Sussex more time to develop.

Some breeds make better fryers than others. Chef Pope recommends dual purpose breeds such as Barred Rocks and Orpingtons for frying. They are the traditional breeds to prepare Southern Fried Chicken for summer picnics. The Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices give flavor to bland industrial chicks.

 “That’s what you are tasting, not the chicken,” he says. “You need the right bird with the right texture.

In the fall, after 21 weeks, the birds are roasters. Five to seven months is the ideal age, depending on the breed. Moist heat, provided by a cup of liquid such as wine or broth, in a covered roasting pan, at 325 degrees, timed at 25 minutes per pound, warms the kitchen and feeds the family.

“Grandma would put that bird into the oven before church, listen to the pastor and was home when the bird was finished cooking,” says Pope.

Being at church also kept the curious and hungry from peeking into the pot and releasing the moisture. Hands off to succeed with this method!

Roasters can also be dry roasted, on a spit. This method requires more attention to oil the bird and keep it basted. Olive oil, butter, bacon, goose or duck fat or any other oil will do. The white meat of the breast and the dark meat of the thighs require different cooking times. Use a cooking thermometer to check for done-ness. Cover the breast with a dish towel soaked in oil or aluminum foil shiny side up, to reflect heat away, and give the legs time to finish cooking.

“Though chicken is a whole bird, it is made of different cuts of meat,” says Mr. Marquette.
Older birds, the roosters culled during the winter, or birds from previous years that you don’t want to feed over the winter, become stewing fowl. These birds have developed full flavor and should not be confused with industrial chickens tossed in a pot of water and boiled. They can become coq au vin as well as Grandma’s chicken soup.

Slowly simmer the bird in a bath of liquid until the meat falls off the bones. The slow moist heat relaxes the strong muscles and releases flavor. The liquid may be part of the dish, or it can be broth used later.

Egg breeds may not have the large carcasses of dual purpose Buckeyes and meat breeds such as Brahmas, but they are delicious and should not be under-rated.

“If you have a homestead that allows you to hold on to not only one top cockerel, but top four or six cockerels, you will have your choice when you set up your breeding pen the following spring,” says Mr. Marquette. “Then you make the final choice and the others become coq au vin.”
Whether you are in a position to keep a small sustaining flock or are more interested in the cooking, traditional breeds make the best choice. America’s cooks are learning how, and their satisfied guests appreciate the effort.

Chef Pope has recipes posted on his web site, www.heritagechef.com, and welcomes additional recipes sent to him at spope@orpingtonhill.net.