If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you won't be surprised to learn that I spent the better part of yesterday at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, VA, seeing where a lot of our meat and produce comes from. I was also there to participate in the Chicken Choosin', a blind tasting of 10 heritage breeds of chicken and Ayrshire's White Cornish Rock Cross (the industry standard broiler chicken) thrown in for good measure. Not only was this event planned to focus attention on heritage breeds of chicken, but it will also serve as input to Ayrshire about what breed or breeds to concentrate on in the future.
Each chicken was raised at Ayrshire farm on organic feed with equal access to pasture to an age of 16 weeks, except for the Corn-Rock which reaches market weight in 6-8 weeks. The Corn-Rocks are what they currently raise and I know from prior experience with them that they are excellent birds, superior in flavor and texture to anything else in this area. Each chicken was roasted identically with no seasonings, then moistened with unsalted chicken stock to keep it from drying out in the chafing dishes. Kudos to the kitchen staff: well done.
I've done hundreds of blind tastings of wine in my life and even blind tastings of things so esoteric as salt, but never have I tasted a major protein source blind before. The good news is that there are significant differences in flavor and texture of the various breeds of chicken that call into question the phrase "tastes like chicken."
I'd say that roughly 80-90 of us tasted the numbered chicken samples and ranked them on flavor, texture and appearance on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being the highest score. Because the chicken was cut up, I only ranked my samples with an aggregate score of both the dark meat and the breast meat for flavor and texture, and not appearance. Each of us then indicated which numbers ranked first, second, and third on our scorecards.
For me, one chicken in particular stood out for being excellent in both flavor and texture and two stood out for being at the bottom of the heap. I had three other chickens clustered near the top and the remainder were in the middle. I retasted the highs and the lows just to reconfirm my rankings with new samples.
As the votes were tallied, a clear consensus emerged for chicken number two on our cards. This handsome bird to the right ranked first in first-, second-, and third-place votes. I had this chicken in third place on my card out of 11 birds. The crowd favorite is the Dorking, and old English breed said to have been brought to England by the Romans. This photo courtesy of podchef.
I had to chuckle when I heard the name of this bird announced. I hope that residents of the town of Dorking won't take offense that I my mind flashed on a Gary Larsonesque cartoon of a nerdy rooster sporting eyeglasses and a pocket protector.
Surprising to me was that the Corn-Rock cross was tied for second with the crowd. I had it as the lowest scoring bird on my card, tasting very generically chickeny, which I suppose is why it appealed to so many people. My favorite was the Plymouth Rock, which edged out several other birds on my card by virtue of its excellent texture across both the dark and the light meat.
We tasted the Buckeye, Cornish Rock Cross, Delaware, Dominique, Dorking, Faverolle, New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island, and Sussex.
My thanks to the entire staff at Ayrshire Farm for inviting me and for all their hard work in making this event run smoothly.