Being rather familiar with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s home town of Axminster and his local Tesco I watched these three programmes about his campaign to get people eating free range chicken (Chicken Out) with interest. With regard to my going free range, Hugh was preaching to the converted, but two things struck me as underplayed.
Animal welfare issues are enough to persuade me to eat free range, even if I don’t feel strongly enough to try to persuade others. But even if they weren’t I would not want to eat the poor quality tasteless mass produced birds. What surprised me in a show fronted by a chef was how little consideration was given to the flavour – the campaign was all about animal rights, and there are always going to be plenty of people who don’t give a damn. The only comments were where people were tasting free range birds for the first time (“it’s so tender” or “it tastes of chicken”). Are there people who really can’t tell the difference, or who even prefer the watery 39 day birds?
So what is it about the English that we are prepared to eat something so revolting just because it’s “2 for £5”? Even those who patently could afford to spend more chose to save their money for… what? Is there something more important to health, happiness and well-being than what we eat? And the argument – again and again – that the pricier free range chickens were not affordable on a budget never stood up. Eat better chicken but less of it. Quality not quantity.
In the end, the most compelling part of the program was the residents on the Millway estate who reared, slaughtered and ate their own chickens – fantastic. But I did admire the lengths to which Hugh went to persuade even take-aways to offer free range as an option (I was as skeptical as the owner of Axminster’s Charcoal Grill that the 2am crowd would be gastronomically demanding, but one customer described his kebab as “tastier and juicier” and wanted it made a regular feature). I’d love it if Lewes’ exploding number of Indian restaurants put on a free range option.