Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it could.

19 Oct 2016

19 October 2016

Meet the Sommerlad chicken, a slow-growing, athletic bird, selectively bred over 10 years to thrive outside on Australian farms and taste like chicken used to taste. Unlike 99% of white broiler chickens that can barely hold their own weight at 12 weeks of age let alone run across the road, the Sommerlad bird instinctively ranges far and wide and is inquisitive and strong. 

At a time when nearly all chicken eaten in our country comes from the same genetic stock (Cobb/Ross white broilers) that are bred to grow at astronomical speeds and reach market weights in five to six weeks, Sommerlad Chicken represents a quiet revolution in Australian chicken farming.

But there's more to it than simply growing heritage breeds prized for vigour and flavour.

There's the skill with which the Sommerlads have bred and crossed multiple generations of different breeding flocks to maximise the most desirable qualities to produce birds that are, literally, made for Australian pastures. It's one thing to grow some heritage breed chickens, it's another thing altogether to breed new strains that can be reproduced consistently and at some scale in pasture-based production.

Then there is the small network of carefully selected, family-run farms where the chickens are raised across the country according to the Sommerlad guidelines. Each farm is unique but all are united by a profound commitment to building a healthier food system and all are passionate trailblazers in small scale, regenerative farming.

All these factors together make this a remarkable product, both as a table bird and in terms of the contribution to a more diverse, vibrant and sustainable food system. We're not the only ones who think so. Sommerlad chickens (grown at Milking Yard Farm) recently won best national product from the land for the second year running at the Delicious Produce Awards.


Last Saturday I went to visit the Sommerlads at Kildare, their farm just out of Tenterfield near the Queensland border. This is the nerve centre where Michael runs the breeding operation, grows the day-old chicks that get sent to the authorised Sommerlad growers across the country and also grows out market-ready chickens for sale to local customers and for us here at Feather and Bone.

I've seen the Sommerlad grower birds grazing in all their kaleidoscopic glory on the lush pastures at Buena Vista Farm at Gerringong (arguably the prettiest farm in the world) and at Milking Yard farm in Victoria (runner up in the category) and that is wonderful. But it was another thing altogether to see the different breeding flocks and magnificent roosters at Kildare and get a sense of the skill and knowledge required to manipulate such a complex genetic palette.

Put these birds together with the farms in the Sommerlad family and you have a product that is so removed from conventional chicken that we'd suggest approaching it as an altogether different product. This is chicken, but not as we know it.

Sommerlad birds live for at least twice as long as conventional chickens, have long legs and an even distribution of dense meat that is best cooked long and slow. Make sure you don't waste the carcass - you haven't tasted real chicken stock until you've had one made from dense, healthy, slow grown, Sommerlad chook bones. To see the difference that slow-growing genetics can make, take a Cobb/Ross chicken leg bone and snap it. Then see what happens when you try to do the same thing with a Sommerlad leg bone.

As always, we suggest eating less but better quality meat. If you're on a budget (who isn't?) explore secondary cuts, be adventurous and try offal - (it's cheap and super nutritious) and cook a Sommerlad chicken once a fortnight. Below is one we prepared earlier and a couple of snaps from my farm visit: breeder rooster and hen; flock of growers; roasted Sommerlad chook; a gaggle of gorgeous Sommerlad daughters and a group of breeder hens. More photos here.

The flock of grower birds pictured will be arriving here this week. It's always deeply confronting when we meet our dinner at the farm and reinforces the importance of respecting and doing justice to the life given up to feed us.


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