There’s something a bit unnerving about catching sight of a yellowed toenail as your dinner bobs about in the pan… yet also, once you’ve hastily checked they’re clean, oddly satisfying. Though they’re little used in the UK, gelatine-rich chicken feet make superb soup, and the decision to leave them on this four-month old Indian Game chicken was, according to Yorkshire-based online butchers Farmison & Co, partly inspired by the “more authentic and less ‘clinical’” French tradition of selling birds whole, heads and all.
Feet are one thing, but I’m relieved not to have look it in the beady eye as I drop it into the pot: having retrieved its scrawny neck from its arse, I add that too, and then chop the neat package of accompanying innards to gild my prune and sausage-meat stuffing.
All this is a far cry from the very first chicken I ever served up, in a rented hovel with a fine crop of mushrooms sprouting from the side of the bath. Proudly I brought my bronzed bird to the table, reached inside for the Paxo – and brought forth a melted plastic bag. Fortunately, hungry students aren’t particularly picky.
When, unable to find a single supermarket bird with innards, I try and find out where they’ve all gone, a Tesco spokesman tells me it hasn’t sold them for “many, many years”, partly because consumers “are not used to removing giblets”. Some blame their disappearance on “EU hygiene regulations”, though giblets are still common in supermarkets on the Continent and C Lidgate, Nigella Lawson’s favourite butcher, says that it has not heard so much as a squawk on the matter.The supermarkets’ explanation, that it’s down to “changing consumer tastes” as Sainsbury’s puts it, seems more likely (Waitrose even reports that customers are now “more reluctant to handle the chicken” at all, hence the popularity of roast-in-the-bag birds). But Devon’s Pipers Farm – which processes about 400 chickens a week, each of which goes out with its full complement of giblets – says only around ten customers a year ask for them to be left out.
Such retailers are of course minnows compared to the big guys, whose suppliers might process 26,000 birds an hour. Removing offal is fiddly work, and if you’re dealing in bigger volumes, hardly cost-effective for an increasingly niche product with an inconveniently short shelf life. Better to sell the livers separately and send the rest, like Sainsbury’s, for pet food. (Louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore, informs me that heads and feet often go to South Africa, to be sold for a stew rejoicing in the name Walkie Talkie.)
Yet one might reasonably wonder which came first, the lack of availability or the lack of demand: if we’re no longer offered the choice, then we’ll never know how much more value you can get for a few extra pence. Catherine Phipps, whose book Chicken includes an entire chapter on “The Offally Bits”, suggests that, if you buy a chicken a week and freeze the giblets, it won’t be long before you have enough of each to make a proper meal out of them, an Indian curry or a Tuscan ragu – “There’s a lot going for livers and hearts in particular: they’re very cheap and very nutritious, loaded as they are with iron, folate and a host of vitamins.”
She even has a recipe in there for braised necks – but draws the line at feet, saying the instructions to cut off the toenails make her feel “quite nauseous”. I’m happy to report the dog is far less squeamish.
Felicity Cloake appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 25 November
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history