September 20, 2009

The Perfect Chicken (part 1) – The Chicken Hunt

I decided to start my own search for perfection with “The Perfect Roast Chicken” recipe.  While the recipe called for a specific type of chicken and potatoes, it didn’t involve anything truly unusual in terms of equipment or technique, so I figured that it would be relatively easy to pull off.  We also have roast chicken here at Villa GoodEnough at least once a fortnight, so I’m used to preparing it, and felt that I would have no issues making two versions of the same dish at the same time.  More fool was I.

First, I had to find my ingredients.  Heston specifically calls for a bird from the Bresse region of France, and Maris Piper potatoes.  I had a feeling that this was easier said than done; while I have seen organic chickens in some of the supermarkets here in Dubai, I haven’t seen anything specifically from Bresse.  Sadly, I could not convince my husband that a trip to France was warranted for chicken-procurement purposes.  My next idea was to see if I could find a local, organic chicken producer.  This too was not possible (currently, I don’t have the contacts in the local food industry which may have lead me to such a producer).  Locally raised (in this case “local” extends to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Oman) chickens are tiny compared to the ones I’m used to in Canada, and battery raised.  Many of the expat complain about the size of the birds here, with suggestions that the resulting meat is not great.  I think, however, that the very size of the birds suggests that they’re not pumped full of antibiotics or growth hormone leading to a bird that is less “mucked-up” in an industrial farming sense than birds farmed in the same manner in North America or the UK.  I have no evidence to prove this.  If there is anyone out there who is happy to show me around a chicken farm here, and to discuss how they’re farmed in GCC countries please let me know! 

It did occur to me that there was one way that I could ensure that I had a local, organically grown free-range bird to cook.  After all, we have the yard space, and it would only take a few months to have happy chickens ready for the pot.  Chicks would be available from some of the local markets, either in Nad Al Sheba, or at the Sharjah animal souk.  And I was sure that the neighbours wouldn’t mind all that much, especially if they were invited over for dinner… 

I presented my brilliant idea to my husband.  To say the very least, he was agin’ it.  Quite loudly agin’ it.  Unhappily agin’ it.  To be honest, I haven’t heard him say “No” in that many different ways before.  He predicted that the chickens would become pets, and we would finally determine the natural lifespan of a chicken.  He predicted that the cat would embark on a reign of terror over the chickens, supported by the dog.  He predicted noisy chickens clucking in the morning (and god forbid we got a rooster by mistake), chicken poop all over the yard, escaped chickens, a bewildered gardener, and an unhappy landlord.  He predicted conversations with the community management company, and visits from security.  He vowed to turn me and my chickens in if they suddenly  just “appeared” in the yard.  My sanity was questioned.  (I, on the other hand, felt that the chickens could be contained in such a manner as to prevent the cat from terrrorising them, the poop could be composted, with the compost enriching our – poor – soil, and that the chickens would assist in our battle against the wee, tiny black ants that regard our yard as their turf.  Need I mention that these bastard little black ants have a complete fondness for chewing on me?  They leave my husband alone.  Maybe if I could convince the buggers to bite him, the chicken question could be revisited…)  Alas, a new house rule was dictated:

Chickens Forbidden

After the Great Chicken Veto of 2009, I knew I had to find a “good enough” bird here in the shops.  In order to find a chicken that I knew was organically raised and free-range, I was limited to the local supermarkets, more specifically Waitrose or the the local organic foodstore.  Both are conveniently located in the new Dubai Mall.   

Potatoes presented a similar problem as the perfect chicken.  Heston wanted me to use the Maris Piper variety, as he went through a significant testing process in order to ensure that they’re the best variety for roasting (in his book, he details his visits to the potato board, testing varieties for their water content, and finally roasting six different varieties as a taste test after determining that they’re best pre-cooked in salted water).  While I have seen different varieties of potatoes on offer here, I thought that the likelihood that I could swan into a supermarket and select the Maris Pipers from the dazzling array of ‘taters on offer would be somewhere between slim and none.  But if I did have a chance of finding a pile of Maris Pipers in Dubai, they would be lurking at either Waitrose or the Organic Foods store.  So off my husband and I went.

We stopped at the Organic Foods and Cafe first, since it was further away from the car than Waitrose.  Here was the potato selection:


Irish Potatoes

There were problems with the chickens there as well.  I wanted a fresh chicken that had never been frozen.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t obtain one here:

Chicken Announcement

So we left that shop and headed to Waitrose to see what they had.  They too had a Maris-Piper-free selection of potatoes  My choices were local potatoes, russet potatoes, and red potatoes – variety unknown for all of them.

Potato Selection

What to do?  I could have headed elsewhere for potatoes, but felt that my chance of finding the elusive Maris Piper at other shops was equally dismal.  I had to let Heston down on the Maris Pipers, but, in the spirit of Heston, I bought some of each variety at Waitrose and decided that we would do a taste test on Perfect Chicken day.  (I could have gone back to the Organic Foods and Cafe to pick up some of their potatoes as well, but I had chosen the wrong shoes – a pair that I had just “refound” and hadn’t worn for a goodly long time.  When the blisters started forming between my toes in the short distance from the car to the organic shop to Waitrose, I decided that the Waitrose selection would have to do.  I also remembered why the shoes weren’t in the regular line-up.  Pity, because they’re really cute flip-flops with a kitten heel.)

We had better luck on the chicken front.  We selected this guy as our “Perfect Chicken”:

Perfect Chicken

He (or she) was corn fed, organic, free-range and imported from Normandy(as the package proudly proclaims).  Not a Bresse chicken, but Hey! – a French chicken, and the best alternative I could find.  Importantly, he hadn’t been frozen.

This guy was chosen as the “Imperfect Chicken:

Imperfect Chicken

The Imperfect Chicken was fed on mystery feed, probably not free-range or organic, and either grown locally or brought in from a neighbouring country.  He too was fresh, not frozen.  (He’s also bigger than the chickens that I normally buy, so a step up for the dining scene of Villa GoodEnough, at least size-wise.  And size does matter, doesn’t it?)

Both of the chickens weighed approximately 1.2 kg.  I also purchased organic carrots (imported from the United States), and some broccoli (non-organic, origin unknown).

As for price, the perfect chicken came in at a cool 125 AED (United Arab Emirates dirhams) while the imperfect chicken was about one-seventh of the price at 18 dirhams.  The local potatoes were the cheapest at 2.95 dirhams, while the red and russet potatoes I bought (both imported) came in at about 15 dirhams per kilogram.  So one of the questions is:  since a perfect chicken is seven times more expensive than an imperfect chicken, does that mean it’s seven times better?  And is it worth it to spend five times as much on potatoes?  Stay tuned for answers…

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