We spent a fascinating morning with Charles Nash who runs Sutton Hoo Chickens on land next to the site of the great Anglo Saxon ship burial. It's a beautiful, atmospheric place with views over the river Deben - lucky chickens.
Charles - tall, blue eyed and charming - has been farming chickens for a decade and his birds - both free range and organic are reared for flavour. We've been cooking Sutton Hoo chickens on a regular basis over the last few months and there's no doubt they are our favourite for flavour, texture and succulence.
With the sun on our backs we walked and talked. The chicken story at Sutton Hoo goes something like this: once every two weeks 2,000 - 3,000 day old chicks arrive from a specialist chicken breeder in Lincolnshire. The breed is a hybrid of a brown feathered mother and a larger white feathered father and is known as the 'Suffolk White' around here. It's a slow-growing bird which consumes 1.5 - 2x the amount of food compared with an intensively reared chicken during its life. At any one time there are around 15,00o chickens at Sutton Hoo.
The young chicks are fed with 'crumb' a protein-rich mix of wheat and soya while the older birds eat pellets of the same ingredients in different proportions. The birds are housed in modest sized warm, dry houses with plenty of space (a little like caravans) with fresh straw bedding laid out every day. The houses are portable and moved periodically onto fresh grass.
The result is a premium quality free range bird which enjoys a better quality of life than would be necessary to qualify for the label 'free range'. Slaughtering is done as humanely as possible.
So what about the difference between organic, free range, freedom food and so on? At Sutton Hoo there is a field for organic birds (Charles sells about 1/3 organic to 2/3 free range). It was interesting to get behind the scenes of chicken production to understand these labels more quickly. The only real difference between Sutton Hoo Free Range and Sutton Hoo Organic is diet: the chicks which arrive can become either but are fed either a regular feed or an organic one. What we learned is that if you are not sure of the provenance of a chicken (say you are buying from a supermarket or eating in a restaurant) then is is certainly true that the label 'organic' tells you that the bird has had good welfare. However, Sutton Hoo 'free range' enjoy exactly the same quality of life as their 'organic' neighbours.
While it might further complicate things to add a new label we left the farm feeling that these 'free range plus' birds are a great choice and justifiably can command a higher price than a bog-standard free range bird.
We'll be back at Sutton Hoo in 2009 with some Food Safari events where you will be able to learn what we did, catch, pluck, cook and eat. Watch this space.