Sundays in Paris we eat roast chicken, sometimes but not always marinated in sage and mustard à la Nigella, with roast potatoes, sometimes but not always crispy. It reminds me of family Sunday dinners, which were always at lunchtime, as a child. The Frenchman and his family knew nothing of roast potatoes before we became acquainted, but are enthusiastic converts: my mother-in-law calls me "La Reine de la Pomme de Terre Rotie" - Queen of the Roast Potato. Sometimes we buy a whole chicken, sometimes just the legs or breasts depending on how many we are feeding, but we always pay extra for what they call 'farmer's' poultry that has been raised 'en plein air' (free range). The label - or the butcher - will tell us it where it has come from, what it ate (usually corn or cereal), and when it was slaughted. It costs more - around 12 euros (£7.50) for a medium-size bird - but we know what we are getting.
In London I worry about chickens. Not in a Jamie Oliver way; I dislike factory farming and would prefer their lives to be decent but as a well-known TV critic pointed out recently, if every British chicken had 1 sq m of personal space they would occupy Wales (in his view a better use of the principality). No, I am more worried about what the chickens, and therefore we, are eating. One supermarket is offering £1.99 chickens while another, my local shop, has cheap packs of Chernobyl-sized chicken legs and pneumatically plump breasts that could have come from a new breed of surgically enhanced Baywatch birds. "Just look at the size of those breasts," I said to the Frenchman whose eyes swiveled on stalks around the supermarket. (To be fair they are called 'the whites of chicken' in French not 'breasts'). I look at the labels; they tell me the weight and price and that is about all.
Cheap food is an sensitive political and social issue, but whatever we pay for it surely we should know where it has come from and what has gone into it. I have no particular fondness for live chickens and do not expect my Sunday roast to have been lovingly hand-reared on organic milk and seed, but who can forget that Mad Cow Disease was caused by cattle being fed mashed-up sheep? My skeptical mother would say: "Aha! How do you know your French farmer hasn't stuck any old label on his chicken?" I don't know. But at least the bird's breasts look normal.
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