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Local chickens ahead of the food fad flock

Every January, a few writers make predictions about what the so-called hot food trends will be in the coming year. For 2013, they've declared that "heirloom" chicken will be among the new options that capture our attention.

Here in Sonoma County we are, once again, ahead of the curve. Much of the rest of the country may be just discovering the superiority of pasture-raised heritage breeds, but here we've had excellent small-scale chicken for more than two decades.

Craig Azevedo and Amy Swenson launched Pepper Ranch Poultry on Pepper Road in Petaluma about two years ago, with two breeds of meat chickens and a flock of laying hens. They sell both their chicken and their eggs direct from the farm and at several local farmers markets.

The couple raises Barred Rock, which they call their "American" chicken, and a French bird called Freedom Ranger.

"When cooked the right way," Swenson says, "the Barred Rock has more flavor than any other chicken. Cooked low and slow, the meat is creamy and buttery."

These chickens, which are less meaty than the ubiquitous Cochin Cross, are sold whole for $7.99 a pound, and Swenson encourages customers to roast them at 275 degrees for one hour per pound.

Because the French birds are more versatile and can be cooked as other chicken is cooked, they are sold both whole and in pieces for $5.99 a pound. Most people don't want gizzards, necks and feet and so these pieces are sold as pet food, though there's no reason for humans not to eat them. (The necks and feet are perfect for making stock and many people, myself included, find gizzards delicious.)

The difference in price is not indicative of quality; the French birds grow more quickly and are harvested earlier than the American chickens.

Although the ranch is not certified organic, the chicken, including the laying hens, is raised exclusively on organic grain and pasture. Currently, about 200 birds are available each month. A flock of 200 laying hens are producing about 24 dozen eggs a week, a number that will double by summer and could grow even more if the flock is increased to 250, which is currently under consideration. For now, if you want eggs, you need to get to the farmers market early.

Initially, Pepper Ranch Poultry was available primarily frozen, with fresh chicken sold occasionally and mostly direct from the farm. This year, it should be available regularly, in part because Azevedo and Swenson hope to soon expand into restaurant sales. This expansion will require monthly trips to Stockton, where the nearest slaughterhouse for poultry is located. They are also considering raising pheasant.


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