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Tastes Like (Heritage) Chicken

The chicken-tasting judges at work, from left to right: chef Tony Esnault, Ayrshire chef Rob Townsend (partially hidden), Vidalia chef R.J. Cooper, "Iron Chef" judge Akiko Katayama and Bob Perry of Chefs Collaborative in Kentucky. (Catherine Cheney -- The Washington Post)

Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., hosted its first chicken tasting on Monday. Because the event was called Chicken Choosin’, I thought I’d be rolling up my sleeves, walking through the coops and watching birds turn into lunch.

But as it turns out, the event was held in the farm’s great fieldstone house, which felt to me like the Versailles of Virginia. Leaders from the commonwealth’s restaurants, wineries and farms came to try 10 varieties of heritage-breed chickens. The event was co-sponsored by the farm (certified organic), Slow Food USA, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care (a certifying body) and Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit group that advocates for a sustainable food system.

What makes a heritage bird? It must be an American Poultry Association standard breed; it must be allowed to mate naturally (big-breasted chickens cannot mate naturally; It must have lived for 16 weeks with a slow growth rate, and have led an outdoor life (who knew?). Ayrshire purchased four birds of each variety and raised them specifically for the event.

Don Schrider, large-breed livestock manager at Ayrshire, took about 30 guests on a tour of the farm, which included scenes of hanging beef, the apparatuses used for killing chickens and spotted piglets in a pen; the latter was a sight that brought relief and squeals from the few children in attendance.

Then a group of about 45 gathered indoors for the tasting. The panel of judges: French chef Tony Esnault and Akiko Katayama of “Iron Chef” fame, both in from New York; chef R.J. Cooper of Vidalia; Ayrshire Farm chef Rob Towsend and Bob Perry from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and a member of Chefs Collaborative. They took their seats in a lovely, sun-filled space and were served from silver trays of steaming slices of white-and dark-meat chicken, with numbered serving utensils to keep things straight.

The two young women at my table who each worked at a farm eight miles down the road chose the same chicken I did as their favorite -- but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Guests consulted materials that described the different heritage breeds they were tasting, but they had to wait until the winner was announced before the chicken samples were identified:

1 Dominique, America’s first chicken breed, bred as early as the 1820s.
2. Dorking, an English breed developed in the mid-19th century.
3. Sussex, developed in England in 1845.
4. Faverolle, developed in France in the mid-19th century.
5. Delaware, developed in (you guessed it) Delaware in 1940.
6. Orpington, developed in England in 1894.
7. Plymouth Rock, developed in New England in the mid-19th century.
8. Rhode Island, developed in 1880s (in Rhode Island).
9. Buckeye, developed in Ohio in the late 19th century.
10. Cornish Cross, the standard Ayrshire Farms breed.

Schrider explained that all chickens involved in the tasting were allowed the same amount of pasture time, fed the same organic feed, killed at 16 weeks (except for the Cornish Cross variety, which was killed at 7-8 weeks because of its relatively fast growth rate), and prepared the same way. And then the tasting began.

My scorecard. (Catherine Cheney -- The Washington Post)

Guests gave three grades, based on flavor, texture and appearance, with 1 being the lowest and 6 being the highest possible score. My favorite was No. 8, the Rhode Island. I gave it high marks for excellent flavor, smooth texture and a flawless white appearance. I ranked the Dorking second. As it turns out, the Dorking was ranked No. 1 among the crowd and by the judges, who gave it top marks, tied with the Cornish Cross.

Here’s what the materials had to say about the winner: “The modern Dorking breed is named for the Southern English town of Dorking. The English bred the bird as a table bird, renowned for its fine-textured, very white meat. The bird is known to be calm and docile and adaptable to a variety of settings. They are good foragers and are an ideal choice for a backyard setting. They lay a fair amount of large, creamy white eggs.”

What I need to know next was: Where can I shop for Dorking chicken? I was advised that asking for heritage breeds at local butcher shops, specialty food stores may help increase the demand. Susie Hass, manager of wholesale accounts for Ayrshire, says the farm may consider breeding Dorking based on the tasting. It has raised them in the past. But the fact that it takes about twice as long to grow that breed is a factor that must be weighed. The Home Farm Store in Middleburg (540-687-8882) sells Ayrshire's Cornish Cross, the judge's co-favorite.

After this tasting experience, I understand the phrase “tastes like chicken” can mean 10 very different things.

-- Catherine Cheney (a Washington Post summer intern)

By The Food Section  |  July 14, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
 | Tags: Catherine Cheney, chicken  
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Speaking of heritage chicken breeds, do we know if it's allowed in DC to keep chickens in one's backyard? Do the zoning laws and ordinances prohibit that? I am thinking of keeping a few hens for eggs...

Posted by: Boomerang | July 16, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

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