My friend Ludovic, who is from My friend Ludovic, who is from Lyon, was very excited one evening when I cooked my version of poule au pot - poached chicken in a pot. It reminded him of something his grandmother and mother both used to make back home. I cooked the chicken with some chopped carrots, waxy potatoes, celery, leeks, shallots, garlic, thyme, peppercorns, parsley stalks and bay leaves until the meat was falling off the bone, then flaked the chicken into a serving bowl with the vegetables, ladled over the seasoned broth, added a dollop of crème fraîche and served it with crusty bread.
Chicken is nurturing and nourishing and its healing properties are renowned. To this day I associate the smell of chicken stock cooking away on the stove with the smell of home, because my mother always had a chicken on the go: golden aromatic broth with chopped parsley if we were sick, or simply a whole chicken cooked with carrots, onion, celery and herbs in a pot of water. Mum would let it cool before she flaked the meat and the jelly and made delicious sandwiches with salt, pepper and butter on rye. My own rescue chicken soup is stracciatella, but with broken pasta cooked in it until really soft. It's deeply restorative.
Not just any chicken will do. If I'm cooking a dish that is all about the chicken I go to my favourite poultry supplier, who buys directly from small farms. The birds are all genuinely free-range and are fed a high-quality diet. Most of them are grown for several weeks longer than the average commercial bird, so they have a more developed flavour and a firmer texture. They also cost a lot more, somewhere between $16 and $26 for a bird, and some people can't fathom spending that much on a chicken. After all, you can buy a fresh free-range chicken from the supermarket for around $10 or a cage bird for even less. It boils down to quality and flavour - and you get what you pay for. Chicken, more than any other meat, I think, is a barometer of the effect of diet on flavour.
Matthew Waechter has been rearing chickens in the Barossa Valley since he was a boy and genuinely loves his work. His chickens are fed on his own mix of grains with no fish- or meat-meal and are rotated from pasture to pasture so they have a plentiful supply of insects and worms. Waechter grows them for eight to 10 weeks, although at Christmas he grows them for as long as 16 weeks so he can supply really big birds of about three kilos. These chickens do a fair bit of walking and you can see this in the flesh, which is plump, dense, firm-textured, dark around the leg and pink throughout the breast. The skin is light golden and the flavour is great. This is what I call the ultimate chook.
I asked Waechter what makes his chickens taste so good, and he said it's the way they're reared. "I place the water and the feed a few feet away so they actually have to walk," he said. "They have the tendency to eat, drink and be lazy - they won't move around unless they have to." He makes his own feed mix and doesn't buy pellets -"You don't know what's in them." The breed of chicken is your everyday ordinary chicken, so the taste really comes down to what they eat, how much they move around and develop their muscles and how long they get to live.
Now that I have my well-fed, free-range, athletic chicken, how will I be cooking it? I like to cook it on the bone because the flavour is much better, and you can't beat a great roast chicken. It's just the thing at the end of a hectic week to unwind with a glass of wine and the smells of roast chicken wafting from the oven. I usually stuff the bird with an apple, some butter, sage and salt. Then I whip up some butter with a little extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, salt flakes and some chopped tarragon or sage or, in summer, basil. I put the butter under the skin, rub salt and extra-virgin olive oil over the bird and dot it with more butter, then it's into the oven with whatever vegetables I feel like. Trussing the chicken helps it to cook evenly and makes it look nice, but usually I forgo this last step (because of laziness).
I've tried turning the chicken from side to side and upside down to moisten the breast, but I find this fiddly (it's not easy to flip a hot bird with tongs and wooden spoons) and, in fan-forced ovens, unnecessary. In my experience, the secrets are starting with a good-quality chicken, seasoning it well, basting it often, and, when it has finished roasting, letting it rest for about 15 minutes.
I'm not a big fan of gravy, perhaps because in our house that always meant one made from a packet - my mother must have thought it was a terrific invention! I prefer to skim the fat from the meat juices, add a drizzle of extra-virgin oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon, and pour the juices over the chicken.