Chanticleer’s compassionate chop

Nothing beats a good, home-grown chook eaten with a good bottle of wine among friends. Mount Claremont verge-front-and-backyard-food gardener Sue Hartley describes a little bit of compassionate – but necessary – backyard butchery.

ON Saturday, ANZAC day, I had a wonderful ’slow food experience’ with my new neighbours who are renting the house next door for four years while the husband, Alistair, is working here in Perth in the oil industry. Birgit, his wife, is a young German woman who is very keen for her three young children to have as many “down to earth” experiences as they possible can while in Australia. She travels all over Perth to buy organic and has also began her vegie patch since she saw mine. I have helped her with tips and ideas on where to go to get materials and what our poor soil needs and now it is thriving.

As I am a back yard chook woman, this also interested Birgit. My light sussex hen went clucky last year and I suggested she may like to sit a clutch of eggs so the kids can see chickens hatch. We bought twelve barnvelder fertile eggs, an old Dutch breed, from an original breeds grower. The chickens are meant to be very calm and child friendly, multi purpose chooks so good for the back yarder to try on first.

The success rate wasn’t great: four eggs were sterile, two died (one by undermining the feed station with scratching until it fell on it) and of the rest, only two were hens. Not a very good ratio of hens to roosters. So we decided to have a rooster feast once they were big enough. At six months of age, the back yard now sounding like a Bali village early in the morning, we chose ANZAC day as the day for the dirty deed. I borrowed a huge pot in which we boiled the water down in the back yard. I bought over a range of killing implements and we discussed the many ways to dispatch them; breaking their necks, twisting them off, using an axe or knife, the list went on. Brigit had downloaded a few recipes and we chose coq au riesling, a delicious easy to prepare, one pot dish.

Another neighbour, Carl, bought his children up from down the street to observe the ‘killing fields’ and ‘do’ one rooster himself, a first for him. Alistair, the dad of Nicholas (8), Timothy (6) and Charlotte (20 months) was also keen to have a go and had been mentally practising how to do a clean cut while keeping all of his fingers. We chose the meat cleaver as the sharpest and easiest implement to use. I went first, as the experienced slaughter woman I am, and nearly removed the head with the first blow of the cleaver. Alistair was more successful and did a very neat trim, feathers included. Carl’s was more a case of chop, chop, chop. Each time the roosters went quietly and calmly to their deaths, as befits the breed. Not quiet enough for one child who left the scene sobbing and vowing to be a vegetarian for ever and ever.

The legs of these birds was bright saffron yellow, and so was the skin, as we revealed it when we plucked the feathers off. The plucking was really easy after they had had a good thirty seconds dunking in the hot water. I showed them how to gut the birds and we discussed all of the anatomy, including the small gonads. Hearts, livers and lungs were dissected but most interest was shown in the big muscle of the crop and a careful viewing of what the birds had recently eaten.

After a brief pause to catch our breath and have a wine, we all trooped inside to get down to dissection. Again, most of the women had never had experience of dissecting a bird so I showed them a few tricks. We ended up with two big pots of rooster, carrots, onion, mushrooms and wine. An hour and a half later, the now five families, including Birgit’s visiting German parents, and another oil industry family from down the road, all sat down to a great feast of superb coq au riesling. We praised the birds’ tastiness and their gift to us of their lives. We hoped we had given them a swift, fearless death and a good life before.

Being the only home grown West Aussie local, and in keeping with the event and day, I showed the visitors photos of my grandfather, Harry, and his two brothers, Stan and Colin Hope, who all returned from those bloody, bitter battles of the WW1, the former in Gallipoli and the latter two, the Somme and Ypres. My grandfather, a county boy, well used to raising and killing his own meat, would have liked the fact that we were breaking bread together with former enemies as he returned home to Australia a committed pacifist and socialist who thought war was not the way to settle disputes between people. Here’s to life and good food!

Coq au riesling
Time: 60-90 minutes, plus overnight refrigeration (optional)

8 ounces sliced bacon, sliced cross wise into 1 inch pieces.
3 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
10 chicken thighs, with skin and bone
8 ounces of button mushrooms, halved
2 large or 3 small cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
3 tablespoons chopped tarragon
1 bottle dry or off-dry riesling wine

1. Place large flame proof casserole or other heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add bacon and stir until it releases its fat. Add onions and saute until softened, about ten minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer mixture to plate, leaving behind as much liquid fat as possible.
2. Place pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches (do not overcrowd the pan), brown chicken pieces on both sides, transferring them to a plate after they are browned.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add mushrooms, garlic, 3 tablespoons of parsley and 2 tablespoons of tarragon. Saute until mushrooms are coated in fat, about 1 minute. Return chicken pieces, onions and bacon to pan. Add wine and raise heat to bring to boil. Partially cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 1 hour.
4 To serve immediately, sprinkle with remaining parsley and tarragon. For best results, cool and refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove any chilled fat on the surface with paper towels. reheat gently, sprinkle with parsley and tarragon and serve. Serves 4 – 6 persons. Best with a light green salad and a chilled white wine.

Susan Hartley

May 2008

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