The lovely little market town of Strathaven (it’s pronounced Straven, don’t ask why, just know that it is) is a real self-sufficient community, it has its own artisan bakers, butcher, craft brewery and monthly farmers market. And if you continue through the town to the rolling hills just south you’ll come across St.Brides Poultry Farm, nestled away with gorgeous views on 8 acres of land. It’s a new farm, built with the passion, commitment and determination of Robert and AJ Morris to build a future for themselves and their family and to deliver the best poultry available on the market.
In 2009, after 40 years of trading, the company started by Robert’s father and that Robert ran, P&C Morris, went into administration. A company of 50 people importing and supplying some of the finest ingredients to the top chefs, restaurants and hotels in the country. Ingredients like extra vecchio balsamic vinegar which is more like sherry than vinegar. But as the recession hit the bank wanted their money back and 40 years of history ended.
Faced with a dilemma of how to move forward the family turned to poultry farming, the livelihood Robert’s father had been engaged in originally. They sank everything they had into the business. Now if the plan had been to build a factory farm producing chickens which are a generic white protein grown indoors under lamps and force-fed, chances are I wouldn’t be writing this. This is not my idea of animal welfare or flavour, two things which are usually (but not always) intrinsically linked. The plan was to produce the best poultry available, chickens, ducks and turkeys which would be free range, slowgrown and reared to produce chicken ‘like it used to be’. Three years later and thankfully the farm is still there and so are the family.
As I walked around the farm chatting I got a sense of what this means to the Morris’s, there is a huge pride in their produce, in the fact that so many of their former P&C Morris customers are on the supply list and that St.Brides Poultry can be found on some of the best tables in the land. These include Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Martin Wishart and The Three Chimneys on Skye. There is an affection for the birds, knowing that they live a good life, that they are allowed to grow naturally and wander as they please is important, partly due to the flavour it produces and partly because the birds live happier lives. This was exemplified by the fact that the guinea fowl which are being reared as a trial were nowhere to be seen and nobody was quite sure where they were, eventually we found them hiding in the thistles, but to me this epitomises free range.
For all this the proof is always in the tasting, does running around in fresh Lanarkshire air, pecking at grass, hiding in thistles and taking over twice as long to get to slaughter weight make for a bird which tastes so much better? Well, yes it does, the breast meat is wonderfully sweet and the leg meat has a beautiful richness to it, there is a more even covering of flesh which helps it cook better I think, it cooks faster as it’s not packed with water which means the flavour stays within the bird. The bones have so much more marrow and therefore make such an amazing stock. The true test for me is how often I buy it, and if I go to a farmers market on Saturday then I will have St.Bride’s chicken on Sunday, without fail. To me it is a treat to get meat so good and for the price per kilo you will not find a better value product. Chicken has become exciting again. Every Sunday the Morris’s have roast chicken done on the rotisserie, not just because it’s handy, but to make sure the quality is right. Pride and attention to detail.
As well as supplying the catering trade St.Brides also attend Lanarkshire Farmers Markets. The range of food available at these is wonderful and as well as poultry includes Clyde Valley lamb, beef, rose veal and venison, locally grown fruit and vegetables, rare breed pork from Mearns as well as artisan breads, fudge and ice cream. I love the way that all these producers serve the local community so well and are committed to it. I go to at least one monthly, it would be great to see you there supporting these wonderful producers. Stop and ask them questions, they’re always delighted to talk to you and answer them for you.
AJ also gave me some top tips for cooking her chickens:
1. Lay the bird on its side for the first 20 minutes and then turn over to expose the other leg for the next 20, the legs cook slowest and this gives an even cook without drying out the breast.
2. Rest the bird breast down to let the cooking juices soak back into the breast meat so the flavour is not lost to the pan.
3. Rarely does she cook the birds for more than an hour as they cook quickly so don’t be too liberal with the timing.
My favourite way to cook chicken is a way I’ve been doing for years. It’s from Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s lovely River Cottage Cookbook essentially with the odd modification and is ideal for two people. One pot delivering soup, meat and vegetables. Even MrsT can’t complain about that washing up.
Take one large casserole, put in the bird, loads of chopped seasonal veg around it (such as potatoes, squash, leek, carrot, shallot, turnip), rub the breast with oil and season with salt. Add a glass of white wine, a glass of water and the herbs you like (I like to use rosemary, bay, thyme and lemon thyme) a sprig of each, plus as much garlic as you like/dare. Roast at 180C for 40 minutes covered then 25/35 uncovered. Check that it’s cooked and leave to rest. Remove half the veg for the main course, throw in a good handful of peas (and/or spinach, lovage, broad beans) cook through quickly and blitz. Serve this as a soup, if you taste a more intense soup good luck to you. Carve and serve the chicken with the veg, if you like gravy you can save a little of the liquor before blitzing the soup to thicken and serve with the meat but I find the meat and veg retain enough juice not to require it. Eat both courses, wash the pot, two bowls, two plates and congratulate yourself.