These chickens have a stress-free life — and a humane death. Yes, you can taste the difference.
RAYNHAM — Newborn chicks arrive in the mail. When the postman doesn’t see Feather Brook Farm owner Arthur “Tad” Largey around, he puts the fluffy little yellow balls somewhere safe. They will grow into meaty birds, and eventually find their way onto restaurant menus or into elite butcher cases, and then, maybe, a cook will sprinkle one with fresh herbs and roast it until golden and juicy.
Chefs rave about the taste of Feather Brook chickens, and many say they like knowing who raised their birds. Today we hear where almost everything on the plate comes from, but chickens are rarely local because there are so few slaughterhouses. Largey (pronounced Lar-GEE) decided to make the investment and build his own, which he can do because his enterprise is small.
A ballot initiative scheduled for vote in November has brought widespread attention to commercial chickens bred for both meat and eggs, and the tiny, confining cages they spend their lives in. In addition to eggs from confined birds, the vote concerns pork and veal.
As Feather Brook Farm chicks grow, they live in an airy barn with enough space to be classified as free-range (though they’re not roaming the land). Besides these meat birds, Largey raises laying hens, which are in a covered enclosure with free rein of the paddocks around the area. His former life as a cabinetmaker has come in handy; he built the barn and pretty much everything else connected to this venture. He also delivers the birds and eggs, along with rabbits and other meat from local farms, and does his own marketing. Birds are fed a mix made specially for Feather Brook by family-run Venture Grain of Taunton; the main protein is soy.
At Shepard restaurant in Cambridge, chef-owner Susan Regis serves Largey’s chickens halved with the feet intact and also whole with both head and feet. She and chef Peter McKenzie had been roasting Giannone birds from Quebec, but “we wanted a better-tasting, better bird,” says Regis. “It’s such a difference to talk to the person who raises the chickens.”
Largey’s birds are not pecking around the property for a reason. “People want them to be outside and have poetry read to them,” he says. But the Cornish Cross breed are not as robust as a breed like his Red Sex Link egg-layers, which have more outdoor space. If the meat birds were roaming, he says, he would not have the survival rate he does. He prides himself on healthy flocks, low mortality rates, and no growth hormones or antibiotics. The 14-acre property is under a license that allows Largey to slaughter 400 birds a week (his orders now are half that), delivered only within the state.
The farmer has a unique marketing routine, in place for the three years he has been raising chickens full time (it was a hobby for a decade). “My sales technique is to go into a place and give them two chickens. ‘Roast them,’ I tell them. Every single time I’ve done that I get that business.”
Chef Todd Heberlein of Volante Farms in Needham says the flavor of a Feather Brook bird is “like nothing I’ve ever had.” Somerville butcher Michael Dulock of M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats, agrees. “I’m not generally much for chicken,” he says. “But this is a tasty bird; it actually tastes like something.”
Birds raised carefully come with a high price tag. Dulock sells them for around $6 a pound, so a 5-pounder is about $30. At Volante, where Heberlein says “they’re flying off the shelves,” they’re the same price, and $1 higher for cut-up birds. The chef works with produce growing in fields around his kitchen, and deeply appreciates the short time between Feather Brook slaughter and delivery. He gets a call from Largey on Monday. “Those chickens are running around,” says Heberlein. Birds arrive on Wednesday.
For customers, Heberlein splits and smokes half-birds ($11.99 a pound), but at home he tucks herbs from his own garden with a little butter and garlic between the skin and flesh of a whole bird before roasting. “The skin crisps up really, really well, a big plus,” he says. He thinks the birds are hard to overcook, which he thinks has to do with freshness and fat.
Largey attributes the texture in part to a stress-free life. On slaughter day, he begins with a prayer, which “sets the tone for the day,” he says. Alden & Harlow chef Keith Garman, who buys Feather Brook birds for the Cambridge restaurant, spends his day off at the farm processing birds. He says he respects Largey’s system and the “little prayer thing.” The whole endeavor, says the chef, “is probably the most clean and humane way we can do it.” (Reader, skip the next part if you’re squeamish.) Largey and his crew set birds upside down in individual cones, which has a calming effect, before they cut the main artery so the birds bleed out quickly. Largey thinks the slaughtering practice affects musculature, and, in turn, taste and texture. In his system, he says, “no adrenaline pumps through the body.”
The farmer, 52, lives with his wife, Marie, in a house on the property. He grew up in Raynham, went to Providence Country Day School, and “was raised to be the next king of industry.” He dabbled in college, real estate development, and construction before becoming a high-end custom cabinetmaker and kitchen designer for 20 years. Renovation, he says, ends for customers when the job is done. “For me it was every day. Now what I get to do is put all that passion, all that love, get to pour it into this.”
He has nothing good to say about poorly raised poultry. “Chickens kept in cages are stressed all the time. Meat birds in dark houses that cannot turn around are stressed all the time.” Largey admits he’d like to get on a soapbox to tell the world how to raise a better bird.
“He loves those chickens,” says Heberlein of Volante. “He loves what he does. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s what makes those chickens so good.”
Feather Brook Farm chickens are available at M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats, 201A Highland Ave., Somerville, 617-666-1970, www.mfdulock.com; Volante Farms, 292 Forest St., Needham, 781-444-2351, www.volantefarms.com; Simpson Spring, 719 Washington St., South Easton, 508-238-4472, www.simpsonspring.com; South Shore Organics, 26 Washington St., Pembroke, 781-536-8861, www.southshoreorganics.com; or go to www.featherbrookfarms.com.