11 December 2007

Killing and preparing chickens for the table

The first time I kept chickens was in a village in Essex - my first experience of keeping animals for food. I had no cockerel, so the girls were purely for their eggs. I could never kill them (From time to time the fox took care of that !) and when I left England I left my remaining chooks to neighbours.

In France, I wanted to have a “real” smallholding, and that meant having chickens and a cock for reproduction. Once I’d got the whole thing up and running, I let my hens sit on their clutch of a dozen or so eggs and 21 days later little miracles started to happen. I had chicks everywhere and this was the start of a long adventure in free-range food.

Even to this day, I love having chickens and their little ones running around our farm. It’s wonderful watching a mother hen do all the things chickens do and teaching her tiny brood to do the same. I feel so sad that these wonderful birds are often seen only as cheap food and that a very large proportion of the eggs consumed in Europe come from battery hens.

The reality of life in commercial broiler chicken unitMost of the cellophane wrapped birds we’ve all bought and eaten have never had a normal existence either, but live in large hangars like these and have a life of misery.

Unless you’re vegetarian, you need to kill to eat. Killing an animal in the prime of its life is very, very difficult to come to terms with. We’ve four dogs, two cats, and almost a hundred goats and sheep. I nurse them when they’re ill, cuddle and stroke them and we work hard to make sure they're all well fed, healthy, happy and comfortable. Yet, there are some animals that we choose to kill for food because I feel that being an omnivore - especially in winter - is the best way of feeding myself.

There are some things that make killing my own chickens easier to accept and the most important is that they have had a good life. The second is that when you start raising chicks you often come across a chick that’s not quite perfect or has been injured and sometimes it’s kinder to put it out of it’s misery by breaking it’s neck. (In my case that was the first time I’d ever killed anything – apart from an insect!)

The third is, of course, that about half of the chicks hatched are male and they grow up into cockerels, and some of them will be the underdogs. If they are left in the pecking order with the older and stronger cockerels they'll be picked on, pecked and ripped by the other cockerels' feet and literally worried to death.

The fourth is that the females suffer a lot of abuse from a dozen or so young cockerels queuing up in the evening at the chicken shed door. There’s lots of fighting, feathers flying everywhere and the "favourite" hens soon become feeble and go off the lay and may become bald on their backs with open sores leading to infection as a result of all the sexual activity.

If you sit watching the girls “walk the gauntlet” on their way to roost. I guarantee you’ll find it easier to kill your first cockerel. (Especially if you’re a woman!)

OUR METHOD OF KILLING CHICKENS – It's obviously best to see this being done by someone who is experienced, so that you have the confidence to do it properly first time.

Start boiling a big pot of water and prepare clean bowls for the liver and heart another for the blood, feet and head and another for the innards.

Tools for killing our chickens - a nutcracker and a very sharp pointed knifeFor killing you’ll need a very sharp pointed knife and a small mallet for stunning.
Go down to the chicken shed and lift your chosen chickens from their perch before the start of their day and put them into a cage or cardboard box with air holes. Leave the box outside the kitchen door.
One person lifts a chicken out and takes it into the kitchen holding the legs together, and the wings together in the other hand - gently but very firmly placing the chicken’s head horizontally. The other person quickly hits the chicken with the mallet on the head. The head should drop if the chicken has been properly stunned. Now grasp the head in one hand and push the pointed knife into the chicken’s neck, through the jugular vein. The blood should flow easily into your receptacle and the chicken will be dead in seconds although it will flutter and shake and needs to be held very firmly until it stops moving.

Some people use killing funnels which make the job easier for one person and restrain the bird but I find it difficult to stun the birds properly and we don't like shoving them into the cones but everyone has their own method - do whatever you feel comfortable with.

Chickens ready for plucking Keep holding the bird firmly until there is no sign of life, and then lay it down near where you’ll be plucking. (We use a bin for the feathers and pluck over the fireplace)

Go and get you next bird, and by the time you’ve finished killing several birds your water should be boiling. Bring the pot over to the fire, resting a corner on the hot ashes or a gas burner to keep it warm if you have a lot of birds to do.

Plucking chickens is easy if you use very hot water and work fastHold the chicken by the feet and submerge it for a minute or so, moving it around gently. Take the bird out and strip off bunches of feathers very quickly while the skin is still hot, because you dip only once. (Doing it again will only cook the skin and the pores will close) With practice, you can pluck a bird in a few minutes. When you've finished plucking, singe the fine hairs on the skin either over a gas ring or go over each bird with a plumber’s blowtorch (air entry closed!).


Cut the skin of the neck close to the shoulders all the way round and pull it up towards the head. Twist the head round – it should be easy to pull off.

Cut neatly around the anus to give you enough room to put your hand it to take everything out the chicken in one piece Turn the bird and cut around the anus, being careful not to puncture the colon. Make a slit from above the anus up to the bird’s breast, put your hand in and gently ease all out the innards. They should come out in one piece, but you may have to fish around for the heart and liver. Take everything out and check that it's healthy and intact.

SEparate the chicken's gall bladder (the small green sack) from the liver carefullySeparate the gall bladder (the small green sack) from the liver being careful not to puncture the sack which contains a bitter fluid which will taint the meat. Put the livers and heart in a small bowl. (for pâté)

Score the gizzard (Photo on the right) half way around the outside and cut in a little - just enough to get a fingernail in to prise it open and remove the contents (stones, grass, insects and grain) along with the hard skin which should peel off easily. Put the gizzards aside with the liver to make “salade de gèsiers”.

Take off the feet by bending them at the knee, slitting the sinews and cutting the skin with a sharp knife. We put the feet, head and any clean waste into our dogs’ dinner - a soup which we add to their kibble. We feed the innards and all waste to our Larsen trap magpies or use them as bait for live traps for foxes etc. (Fabrice is a registered trapper.) You can either burn or bury them under trees and bushes if you really can’t find another use.

Wash or wipe the birds and prepare them for the freezer or stuff them ready for the oven or for cooking in a casserole. The gizzards, liver and other sweetmeats can be left in the 'fridge or somewhere cool for a day or so until you're ready to use them.

Sweep the floor, brush all the feathers into the fire or put them on your “soft fruit” compost, wipe the kitchen table and congratulate yourself on a good morning's work !


detroit dog said...

So good to see this post! I've been wanting to ask questions, but didn't know how to ask w/o seeming rude. I am a vegetarian - for lots of reasons that I think I'll address in my own post in a few days (vox vero) - for about 30 years now. I did eat turkey sausage for 9 months about 10 years ago (weird cravings for a year that I finally gave in to), and earlier this year I ate chicken soup for several months as I was cooking the chicken for my dog before her death. Actually, I've eaten crickets and grasshoppers, too. However, when I cooked for my girl, I always thanked the chickens for giving their life for her and for me. I had wondered if it was difficult emotionally for you since you seem to care for your animals. It's truly the "big business" practices that I have a problem with. Well, this comment is getting long! Best regards.

La Ferme de Sourrou said...

It is very weird actually killing a living thing when you don't really need to eat meat.

I do have difficulty with that to be honest and maybe one day I'll change and be totally horrified that I could even consider it. Who knows ?

We're not religious, but when we eat meat we say a few words at the table before eating - a bit like your "thanking" the chicken. I know some of our guests prefer not to think about it, but I feel it's only right to acknowledge that the animal gave up its life to feed us.

It's a very difficult subject isn't it ? And I too could go on and on about how I feel, but I think the most important thing is that each one of us chooses a path which we feel is right for us.

Irene xxx

Renee said...

Wow, this was a great post. It was so thorough, and at times a little shocking to a city-girl, but it was really informative and interesting.

I totally agree that if you choose to eat meat, you should understand the process of getting it to the table. You are an inspiring woman for us city girls :)

Mousie/Paisible said...

very interesting to read this...strong, sensible...quite nice to read...but i think i wouldn't be brave enough to kill them...don't mind taking off the feathers and emptying the beast...

La Ferme de Sourrou said...

That's always a start Mousie, at least you know where your chicken comes from.


Gina said...

I've been wanting to "brave" this for sometime on my own farmette, but am afraid that after I kill the bird, I will mess up in the gutting process (i.e. slit open the colon) and waste its life. How far around do you make the cut around the anus, if you don't mind going a bit more in detail?


La Ferme de Sourrou said...

Hi Gina,

Even if you slit the colon, you can still wash the bird under running water and will come to no harm - at least we never have. ;-)

I cut all the way round just enough to make sure that when you pull out the entrails, being careful not to squeeze to hard, the anus comes away with them and doesn't get the carcass dirty.

It's best to see it being done because it's difficult to explain in writing, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

Good luck !

Stew said...

I raise pigeons for food. It's never any fun killing them, but practice makes perfect. They now get killed very efficiently & quickly.
I'm rubbish at plucking tho. My wife can pluck 2 birds to my one.

karl said...

i think that knowing where our food comes from in this detail should be a social requirement. i believe the prepackaged society as we know it is a major part of our problems. led down a primrose path to disaster.

Di said...

This is such a good information as i have just got 10 of my own chickens which are a couple of days old and need as much info as possible! Thanks

Anonymous said...

I saw your blog in "A taste of Garlic" and wondered if you would be interested in contributing to our new online magazine TIENS ! Le Sud-Ouest de la France.

Here's the address to the home page: http://websitetiensmagazine.dutchgiraffe.fr/ with a link to the magazine.

For more information, please contact me.
Kind regards,
Perry Taylor

peter said...

Do you know if you need any special licence or similar to sell the meat?
Thinking of markets etc.

La Ferme de Sourrou said...

Yes Pete, you need to be a registered farmer and pay social security cotisations to the MSA.

The chickens must be killed in an abattoir and you need to collect them with a refrigerated vehicle.


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