Please note: I am an omnivore. I respect people’s rights not to eat meat, but I do- and I want to be a responsible omnivore who celebrates healthy food, reared properly and killed with thoughtfulness. This article is about killing chickens and butchering them for meat and how I felt, doing it for the first time. If that upsets you or offends you, please don’t read it. I am struggling with my own path on this and hope you will respect that.
It’s an inevitable fact of rearing chickens that sooner or later you will probably have to kill one. Whether it be sick, or whether it’s a cockerel you need to eat, the day will come when you’ll have to “do” for a bird. And it’s not something to be taken lightly, even if the gallows humour breaks through with the nervousness of taking a life of a warm blooded creature. I love my chickens with a passion and am soppy over them in a way I shouldn’t be. They follow me round the garden whilst I’m weeding and digging, I watch them peeping out from under their mothers after a hatch. I rear them with all the love and tenderness a menopausal woman has to spare. Killing them, plucking them and preparing them for dinner is the last thing I really want to do. However, being a chicken keeper or indeed, a chicken eater comes with its responsibilities and I intend to live up to them.
So it was with some trepidation that I signed up for Julia’s chicken butchering workshop. Julia lives and works here in the Algarve and is passionate about rearing healthy food for herself and her family. She has come to terms with the fact that she’s an omnivore and wants to be able to kill and prepare her own chickens. She understands the emotional difficulties we all face when we have to kill something, but she’s committed to doing this in the best way possible and showing others how to do it too. None of the five of us who attended the course were happy with the prospect, but we all tuned up with the same intention, to make a commitment to the responsibilities we face as animal keepers and to do our best to kill them humanely and butcher them properly without waste. (Julia uses every part of the chicken)
It was an unusually grey day as we wended our way in convoy up into the hills above Salir. The smell of pine and eucalyptus hung deliciously in the air and some of the cork trees had been newly stripped, giving them that wonderful red brown trunk. The dripping trees and the dark skies seemed to be in sympathy with the deed we were about to commit when we arrived at the farm where the course was to take place.
The course members had bought a chicken or even two that they wanted butchered. I didn’t bring one, as I couldn’t face killing either of my two beautiful bantam cockerels and am still looking for a home for them. I felt slightly hypocritical about this slight cop out, but every step you take along this path of admitting the truth about where meat comes from, needs to be taken at your own pace. Ironically, the yard was full of chickens including a mother hen with eight babies, all hopping and skipping about amongst the huge pumpkins Julia has grown this year. They looked like very happy chickens.
It was on the trunk of an old dead cork tree that Julia hung the “Killing cone” a sort of metal funnel used for managing the killing process with less stress to the chicken and ourselves. The trunk was stained with a dark stream of old blood from previous killings and as we stood around with mugs of warm coffee against the damp, we confessed our nervousness to each other and our doubts about whether we would be able to wield the knife when the time came.
We all took the process very seriously, but the odd joke lightened the heaviness that “normal” people feel when they have to take a bird’s life.
The first cockerel up for butchering had a name, Jack. Jack had become very aggressive to humans and so it was time for him to meet his maker. The fact he had a name somehow made it worse. My father, who was a farmer in his youth, always told me you should never name your future food. He was a big, strong bird, but when Julia placed him gently upside down in the cone, he went completely still whilst she showed us where to make a cut on his neck, on the left side, feeling for the base of the skull and moving a little towards his feet, to sever the jugular vein. He didn’t even wince as she made a deep cut and although it took longer than she expected for him to die, it just looked like he was going to sleep. I expected there to be flapping, but this didn’t happen until he was completely dead. (This spattered us with blood, so I was glad I had an apron on, as I was holding his feet.) I thought about how this has been the lot of unwanted cockerels from time immemorial, but how far removed we have come from this hot blood and mass of feathers when we buy our pre-wrapped, sanitised chicken from the supermarket.
All too soon, it was my turn. I had to despatch a young, black cockerel that Julia didn’t want to keep any more, a handsome bird. I looked him in the eye and thanked him for his life. I looked brave, but my stomach was churning inside. Up to the moment when I made the cut, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But when the time came, with Julia’s support and a very sharp knife, I was resolute and when my first cut wasn’t quite deep enough, I firmly and quickly made a second one. Then I felt distressed and had to walk away to catch my breath and shed a little tear. It isn’t easy killing any creature and nor should it be.
As a group, we supported each other. Some brought birds they’d raised from chicks and swapped birds with others so they didn’t have to kill their own. One person decided she wasn’t ready yet, having never even held a chicken up to now but hoping to keep them in the future. But she worked to support her partner who was able to carry the process through. After each bird had been killed, they were hung ready for plucking. If you pluck them immediately, then you don’t need to put them in hot water as they are still warm and so we plucked in a companionable way, chatting about our experience, relieved the birds were now dead and we could get on with the business or turning them into dinner.
Plucking wasn’t too difficult, and at this stage you should also remove the crop and the scent gland in the “parson’s nose” (chicken’s bum) and soon the ground was full of feathers, which Julia puts on the compost heap as they make great fertiliser.You just need to make sure you don’t pull out too many feathers at once and break the skin. We finished off by singeing off the last feathers with a blow torch.
A pleasurable break for lunch ensued, happily not chicken, but a delicious leek and potato soup with bread and local cheeses, whilst we got to know each other. It was interesting meeting other people who have made their home here in the Algarve and to learn about how they make their living, how they came to be keeping chickens and to swap their experiences of predators and chicken rearing, how to feed chickens organically and the different breeds they were interested in.
The next session we got down to the gritty business butchering the birds . We had to sever the windpipe at the neck to pull it through with all the guts intact, literally with our hands inside the cavity of the chicken. We were surprised at the bright colours of the viscera, the vivid maroon and yellow of the stomach, the emerald green of the bile sac (which you must not break at all costs as it makes the meat bitter) We collected all the bits good to eat, such as the heart, the liver and even the cockerel’s testicles (which are huge and inside the bird) Julia says the head makes an excellent stock, although most of us were a bit doubtful and discarded the head in the slops bucket, as though that would help us forget the deed. I forgot to ask Julia what she does with the guts and discarded bits, but I expect she buries them somewhere under a fruit tree or adds them to the compost for fertiliser.
Finally we cut off the feet and took off the nails and the chicken was dressed and ready to eat or freeze. When I put mine in the bag, it looked quite a lot like the chickens you buy in the shop, but what a journey we had come through to get to that!
I left feeling I’d learned a great deal. I had killed a chicken effectively and more or less confidently. I had plucked it and butchered it, something I’ve never done before and I had shared what was almost a hunter and gatherer experience with supportive and caring chicken keepers. I can’t say I was “happy” with the outcome, but I was certainly satisfied and went home bearing my chicken for our dinner, knowing exactly where it had spent its days and last hour and feeling I had taken full responsibility for the food I was about to eat.