In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle gets nostalgic about her chicken dinner.
My mother has always spoken about the roast chicken dinners of her childhood with wistful reverence. Chicken tasted different back then, she says; eaten far less often than it is these days, it was a real treat rather than a weekly staple, and was reliably juicy and full of flavour. As chicken has increased in popularity, more and more shortcuts have been taken to meet rising demand and, while today’s chicken might be “cheap and cheerful,” I wonder whether we’ve sacrificed some of what made it so special.
I meet Sara Mitchell of Poulet Bonne Femme in their Monkstown location, tucked inside the food-filled surroundings of Avoca, and we sit down over coffees to chat about what makes their free range Irish rotisserie chicken so delicious. PBF was launched at Dun Laoghaire’s farmers’ market in 2009. Originally intended as a temporary income for Sara and her husband, Gavin, the enterprise grew wings (if you’ll pardon the pun) and took off in a way they could never have imagined — especially considering that this was in the depths of the recession, and PBF sold only free range chickens which cost significantly more than their supermarket counterpoints.
So what made Sara and Gavin opt for free range in the first place? “The biggest driver, for me, was definitely the flavour. Free range birds are reared outdoors and they have a much better flavour as a result. I even find that stock made from free range chicken bones has a superior taste. There are also the moral implications, of course: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had just done his exposé on battery-farmed chicken and it had opened my eyes.” I ask whether they had found it more difficult to sell free range birds when there was much cheaper chicken available. “Not really,” she muses. “It makes us stand out in the market. We’re really about providing the best quality meat we can get, so we think of ourselves as high quality, rather than high end. A few people did ask why they should pay €12.50 for a chicken when they could get one for €4.50 in the supermarket, but I would always tell them to taste ours and see why it was worth more. Almost all of those customers were converted. It’s also important to point out that one of our large chickens will feed six people, as they don’t shrink in the oven, so from that perspective they really aren’t expensive.”
Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength, opening in a number of Avoca outlets and, in November last year, in Dundrum Town Centre. With plans to open in UCD in just a few weeks, and discussions continuing around launching in the UK, I wonder whether their customer has changed since those early days? “When we started, we only sold whole, half or quarter chickens, so it was very much a grocery stop. Since then, we’ve diversified into other meats — ham, porchetta, beef and lamb — and started making sandwiches at lunchtime. We also do a range of side dishes, so now you can pick up roast potatoes and gravy and have your whole dinner covered, and we make a wholesome chicken noodle soup using stock made from the carcasses. These days, our customers range from school kids to 90-year-old women, plus a lot of sports players who love the high protein content. Irish people are becoming more aware of where their meat is coming from, and making an ethical choice is increasingly relevant.”
So what is it about Poulet’s rotisserie chicken that has everyone hooked? Sara puts it simply: “It reminds me of how chicken used to taste when I was young, and makes me remember my Mum’s roast chicken dinners. People aged around 50 and older remark on that a lot, that it tastes just like the chicken of their youth.” With a consummate poultry professional like Sara on the same team as my mother, I can’t help but agree: it’s well worth eating chicken a little less often and enjoying the luxury of a plump, flavoursome bird when I do.
I’ve taken advantage of the size of a PBF chicken for this Vietnamese chicken salad; the last time I picked up one of their birds from Avoca in Kilmacanogue, I had plenty of leftovers, and this salad is one of my favorite ways to re-purpose them. Fresh, zingy and packed full of goodness, it’s a great option for lunch or a light supper — and, of course, I recommend using a plump free range chicken for maximum flavour.