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A Fowl Story: Paltry poultry and the Great Chicken Dearth

A Fowl Story: Paltry poultry and the Great Chicken Dearth
Rare bird: Tony Jackman’s roast chicken and potatoes with lavender butter, in Calvinia, Northern Cape. 16 April 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Spending three weeks in a spooky colonial house in a Hantam Karoo town narrows down your pantry options. Especially when this town has no tradition of eating chicken, and the Great Chicken Need descends on you. You have to have roast chicken. But can you find any?

My days right now are all about writing, both for this food platform in Daily Maverick and my extracurricular scribblings. Unravelling the complexities of my past. Laying waste to childhood trauma. And leavening my days while I write are thoughts of what I’ll reward myself with once the day is done. What I will make for my solitary supper.

This being the Hantam, red meat is what goes onto plates here. Calvinia is the capital of vleis. But after six nights of lamb, interspersed with one of pork, I needed roast chicken. I don’t know about you, but sometimes in my family, we need roast chicken. Me. Di. Rebecca. We’re all afflicted by it. Once in a while, it becomes imperative for us to have our roast chicken fix.

Meanwhile in the heart of the Hantam Karoo, there is a Great Chicken Dearth.

But Calvinia is not like other towns where there are lots of packs of chicken breasts and thighs and legs in the fridge at the supermarket. And plump whole ones next to them. Once, about 20 years ago, I was writing a play in the Boekehuis and the Great Chicken Need struck me. There was not one chicken in town. Not one single drumstick. I asked a lady at the Spar and she said: “You won’t find chicken in Calvinia, meneer. We don’t eat chicken here.”

Then, at the OK, another lady was saying much the same thing to me but then said: “Hang on, meneer, let me check the freezer.” And right at the bottom in the corner was the tiniest, scrawniest chicken ever seen by the human eye. “Ja, but it’s free range,” she said, beaming.

It was free range. In the sense that it had run around somebody’s back yard desperately searching for something to eat, and after some days had died of exhaustion.

But my need was so great that I bought it anyway. It defrosted for the rest of the day, then went into a pot in the old black range in the kitchen of this writers’ house. I’d like to say it cooked until it was tender but I don’t like to lie. I checked the drawer for pliers to prise the meat off. I gave up and wrenched the powdery flesh off its withered carcass with my bare hands; it came away in dry strips that chewed like cardboard chews.

I ate the potatoes and peas instead.

So, picture me at the same two shops in Calvinia this week. Surely, by now, I had said to myself, two whole decades later, the chicken situation in this town can only have improved. Children have grown up and been to the big cities, and seen how people eat chicken there, and come home with tales of derring-do, pirates and chickens in the shops.

But, at the Spar, no chicken in the fridge at all. At the OK, same story. It’s Groundhog Day in Calvinia. As I walk past the nearby freezer, something catches my eye. Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five chickens, frozen in time. Four are large, but one is small. A one-man chicken. (It’s smaller than it looks in the picture.) 

The small one, however, was not frozen at all. It had only been put into the freezer minutes before I walked in. That chicken was waiting for me. It was the chicken that was going to make me rethink my view of this town as a No Chickens Zone with a checkpoint where people check your boot and back seat for evidence of chicken.  

Chicken normality was restored. And what’s more, this fowl was fresh, plump, and had never seen a backyard.

There are a million and one ways to roast a chicken. But sometimes you just need to open the kitchen door and step outside, and entrust your supper to whatever’s in front of you. I stepped outside and found lavender.

Roast chicken and potatoes with lavender butter

(Serves … erm, one)

Ingredients

1 small chicken

Butter

Lavender sprigs

Salt

Black pepper

Olive oil

3 smallish potatoes, peeled and halved

Method

Preheat the oven to 230℃.

Rinse the bird and pat it dry. Season the cavity with salt and black pepper. Push lavender sprigs inside.

Prise under the breast skin and slide in a couple of lavender sprigs and push some butter under the skin too. Neaten the skin again.

Season the outside of the fowl with salt and black pepper, and drizzle olive oil over.

Place some pats of butter here and there on the breast skin.

Place the potatoes alongside the bird, and drizzle olive oil over them.

Roast at 230℃ for an hour and 10 minutes, or until the bird is cooked to the centre. Test by inserting a skewer in the thickest part, right to the bone. If the juices run clear, it’s done, if they’re pink, it needs a bit more time.

I served the chicken and potatoes with garden peas. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

 

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