Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 4: Red Junglefowl

My two-year-old niece could identify this one:

Except she’d be WRONG.

Sort of. Because this is not just any old chicken; it’s a Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus, the wild ancestor* of everyone’s favourite kind of meat regularly served by the bucket.†

It’s an Asian species, and according to Wikipedia was probably domesticated in Vietnam 10,000 years ago; it reached Europe about 5000 years ago and was probably brought to Britain by the Romans. So they’ve been living around us for a very long time now, pecking around in our courtyards, supplying us with eggs and meat and exciting new strains of influenza. In some ways the most surprising thing about them is how familiar-looking they are: after millennia of domestication, the cock junglefowl (junglecock?) could still pass unnoticed in a farmyard.

The females look a bit more wild, I think; without all the distracting familiar cockerel plumage you can see the shape of the bird and see its relationship to pheasants and partridges:

However, the Red Junglefowl is ‘endangered’ by interbreeding with domestic chickens. There are plenty of junglefowl living wild out in the forests of southeast Asia, but not surprisingly, they tend to breed with free-ranging chickens. There’s something slightly weird about hearing conservationists worrying about the genetic purity of wild populations; obviously if there’s any value in preserving wild animals, I guess that implies preserving them as they are, but still there’s something just a little bit, um, Nazi about these attempts to maintain the blood-purity of the Red Junglefowl, or the White-headed Duck, or the Florida panther.

* Though possibly with a bit of Grey Junglefowl thrown into the mix.

† Or indeed in a basket, in the dish known as ‘chicken in a basket’. Which used to be a staple of English pub food, but which I haven’t seen for years. I think it’s probably gone the way of gammon and pineapple.

» Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) male 2 and Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) family are © Lip Kee Yap and used under the CC by-sa licence.

Napowrimo #24: Rooster Death

In Italy there lives a fowl
they know as Rooster Death;
but mainly that’s because it has
such dreadful garlic breath.

So if you think your reputation’s 
getting rather ghastly
then after meals be sure to eat
a little bunch of parsley.

Chicken a l’estragon

I don’t normally give French names to dishes I chuck together, but apart from the fact that this is very French-inspired, ‘estragon’ is such a good word. And it always makes me think of Waiting for Godot, a play I’ve never seen but which is quite famous.

Of course ‘tarragon’ is also a lovely word. Quite apart from the sound of it, it lends itself to the pun ‘Catherine of Tarragon’ (try and work that into a conversation). And is very nearly arrogant.

Cut chicken breasts into chunks. Oil and season them, then brown them in a hot pan (make sure they’re just about cooked through). Set the chicken aside and soften some shallots with butter in the same pan. Take most of the shallots out and put them with the chicken. Pour some Noilly Prat and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc into the pan and reduce down, scraping up the nice brown bits off the bottom. When there’s not much wine left, put in a little chopped tarragon (not too much, it’s quite a strong flavour) and double cream. Bring to the boil. Put the chicken back in the pan and warm through.

Obviously any old white wine would be fine, and you could either use all wine or all vermouth and that would probably work too, but this is what I did.

simple pleasures

A good-quality chicken breast, sliced nearly through and opened out like a book. Oil it and place it between two sheets of clingfilm, then beat it flat with a rolling pin. It doesn’t have to be carpaccio thin, just flat enough to cook through quickly.

Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and salt and cook on a hot ridged frying pan. Just wait until the thin parts of the meat turn opaque before turning over and leaving for about a minute. Sprinkle the chicken with a little lemon juice and put on a plate to rest for two or three minutes.

Eat it, including the juices that have collected on the plate, with a few green leaves topped with olive oil and freshly grated parmesan. And a glass of nice white wine.

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