Caution – this blog contains scenes of gratuitous violence and may be unsuitable for children and vegans. It’s also my longest blog yet, overtaking the previous record-holder, ‘(Bitten to) death in Venice‘ by over 600 words, so if you decide to continue, you can’t say I didn’t warn you!
A couple of blogs ago I wrote about our latest contingent of chickens (see ‘One flew over the chickens’ nest‘). It struck me that, whilst I’ve mentioned various chickens and ducks in previous blogs, I’ve never told you about the time, some years ago now, when Mrs Oz and I decided to try our hand at raising some ‘table birds’ – i.e. chickens for eating, rather than egg-laying.
It was Jamie Oliver’s fault. Indirectly, I should add, before he sets his lawyers on me. To be fair, I suspect he doesn’t read my blogs and has probably never bought one of my books, despite the fact that I’ve bought three of his. However, I am in the risk management game and I have no desire to see the inside of a court again any time soon (see ‘Judgement day’).
The reason that Mr Oliver is implicated in this particular tale is that, whilst holidaying in a lovely cottage in Devon some years ago, I came across a copy of his book ‘Jamie’s Italy’, which accompanied the TV series of the same name. As my die-hard readers will no doubt have surmised over the years, I’m something of an Italophile. I’ve been to Italy more times than I can remember. I love the country, the vast majority of the locals I’ve had dealings with whilst there and the food (obviously). I even used to speak the lingo passably well, although lack of practice in recent years has led to a massive decline in my fluency, which is a constant source of frustration.
So, having watched the TV series, when I happened upon the book I was keen to read it. If you haven’t read it (in which case, you should, because a) it contains some cracking recipes and b) I’m hopeful that this plug will spare me any correspondence with the aforementioned lawyers), I should point out that each section, before the recipes, begins with Jamie‘s musings on a related topic.
Turning to the section entitled ‘Meat’ I was somewhat taken aback and, initially, a little shocked to see a photograph of a dead sheep, its throat cut, hung up over a bowl. Not a typical cookery book illustration, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, when I read Jamie’s explanation of why he’d included it, it made perfect sense. He said – and I’m paraphrasing here, if you want to know exactly what he said I suggest you buy the book (and please do, for the reasons mentioned above) and check out page 211 – that, whilst he realised the picture would shock some people, it was there was to highlight the point that, unlike the vast majority of people in the UK (and, I suspect, several other countries), most Italians understand where meat comes from and, more to the point, many know exactly how and where the animal was raised, what it fed on and how it had been treated. Conversely, in the UK (and several other countries) I’d be willing to bet that most people don’t have the faintest idea, nor care, about these things, and fail to make any connection between the shrink-wrapped lump of pink stuff on the supermarket shelf and the animal that it came from, let alone what kind of life, or death, it had. Out of sight, out of mind can be pretty convenient sometimes.
But it’s not my intention to preach to you about animal welfare – I’ll leave that to your own individual consciences. The point here is that it struck a chord with me and I wanted to ensure that my kids, who were, at the time, something like 12 and 14, didn’t join the out of sight out of mind brigade.
So Mrs Oz and I decided we’d raise some chickens to be eaten, rather than the purely egg-producing varieties that we’d previously kept. They’d have a much better life than the vast majority of commercially-reared chickens, we’d know exactly what they’d been fed on and that they hadn’t been pumped full of all manner of drugs and chemicals and we’d all learn something in the process.
After a bit of research we decided that twelve would be a manageable number and went shopping for the necessary paraphernalia. In hindsight, asking the staff at the Domestic Fowl Trust which were the best breeds to eat was probably a mistake but you live and learn. Having extricated myself from that particular faux-pas I bought a whole bunch of stuff, including an ‘incubator’ – essentially a plastic tray with a transparent, vented lid, which resembled, at least to the uninitiated, a slightly larger and hugely more expensive version of the propagator I’d bought in a previous life for raising seedlings – and a coop big enough to house twelve growing chucks.
On returning home, we located a more appropriate supplier and placed our order, for twelve day-old chicks. A few days later, our new guests arrived, delivered by a very friendly chap with a huge beard (I have to confess I didn’t check his footwear but if I had to guess I’d go with sandals) in a high-tech cardboard box (that’s the chicks, not beardy-man, obviously). After he’d left, we decanted said box into the incubator/propagator and it became apparent that there were a few more than the twelve we’d ordered – twenty-two to be precise. Not knowing any better, we assumed there must be an attrition rate, and that it was therefore common practice to be given a few spares – the day-old chick equivalent of a baker’s dozen. But they all survived – even the runty one with the gammy leg, which we naively assumed would be an early casualty, survival of the fittest and all that.
The upshot was that they quickly outgrew the incubator and, just as quickly, outgrew the interim enclosure I’d built for them, resulting in me having to hurriedly build an extension to said enclosure – with, I have to say, a rather natty archway between the two sections.
That was only the start of our worries, though. For one thing, the coop we’d bought, at vast expense, to house twelve growing chickens would rapidly become somewhat cramped with twenty-two of them crammed into it. So another extension was needed. For another, a fundamental point we hadn’t really considered was sex! When you buy layers you get females, obviously. When you buy table birds, however, you get what you’re given. Which, in our case, was a mixture of males and females, roughly half and half. This gave rise to a couple of issues.
Firstly, as hens mature they start to lay. If you have ten or eleven hens, before too long you get ten or eleven eggs a day. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lot of eggs for a family of four.
Secondly, as cockerels mature, they find their voices and learn how to crow. If you have ten or eleven cockerels, before long early mornings become quite loud. All I can say is we must have particularly tolerant, or deaf, neighbours. The noise thing, however, did help us to decide the order in which the birds were dispatched. There’s no way to guild the lily here – on killing day the loudest one was first in line!
And so to the grisly part. Vegetarians, vegans and those of a more sensitive disposition might want to look away now, assuming you haven’t already done so.
I’d read up on how to do it and rehearsed it numerous times in my head. Above all I wanted to ensure the deed was carried out as quickly and humanely as possible. Eventually, the big day arrived, when the first one’s number was up. I’ll spare you the gory detail, but suffice to say I found it to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I’m pretty sure the dispatchee would have agreed with me on this, but at least it was over with quickly for him. I thought or, at least hoped, that I’d become inured to the process as time went on but, whilst my technique undoubtedly improved with practice, I found number twenty-two just as distasteful and unsettling as number one – in fact more so, as number twenty-two was bigger and stronger than number one and, not to put too fine a point on it, required a more spirited tug.
We’d decided on twelve after quite a lot of thought, the idea being that this would be manageable from a husbandry point of view and would enable us to have a relatively relaxed dispatching schedule, doing one (i.e. killing, plucking and gutting it) at our leisure, every weekend or so over a period of three or four months. With twenty-two, all maturing around the same time, whilst not exactly production line standard, the reality was that some weekends we had to ‘do’ two or three, which wasn’t quite as relaxed as we’d hoped. The best laid plans and all that.
Time and time again, the law according to Mr Murphy kicks in and scuppers our seemingly well-thought-out plans. And, like it or not, we have to deal with it. I’ve said it many times before, but at the risk of sounding like a stuck record (readers of less mature years may need to look this up) I’ll say it again, and I’m certain this won’t be the last time. Plans are important but sometimes they have to change on the fly, so flexibility and capability are equally as important as plans, if not more so.
There’s a world of difference between reading about how to do something and actually doing it. Learning to swim, handle a chainsaw safely, dispatch a chicken and crisis management are four activities that spring to mind, which, in my humble opinion, fall into this category. While theory is all well and good, there are some things that you only get good at through regular practice (see ‘Practice makes perfect’). And if you don’t practice for a while, surprise, surprise, you’re likely to lose your edge.
Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience – at least the grizzly part of it – I’m glad we did it. Our kids learned about where meat comes from, what is frequently and often unnecessarily pumped into it, that it’s possible to be a meat-eater and be compassionate in the way that the animals are reared and killed and that most of us can do an awful lot better when it comes to the amount of food we waste. Mrs Oz and I also learned a lot, not only about the process but also quite a bit about the internal workings of a chicken, which was fascinating.
And in case you were wondering, they were delicious!
Agree? Disagree? Want to share your own thoughts or opinions?
Leave a reply (below) and let me know what you think.
Andy Osborne (known as Oz to friends and colleagues) is the Consultancy Director at Acumen, a consultancy practice specialising in business continuity and risk management.Andy is the author of the books ‘Practical Business Continuity Management’, ‘Risk Management Simplified‘ and ‘Ski Boots and Celery – A Compilation of Oz’s Business Continuity Blogs’, as well as his popular blogs and ‘Tips of the Month’, all of which aim to demystify the subjects of business continuity and risk management and make them more accessible to people who live in the real world.