Poultry pioneer aims to put new Norfolk Black chicken breed at the top table
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
The creators of the Norfolk Black chicken hope the distinctive new breed will become a menu highlight in the nation's restaurants.
It's a brand new poultry breed which carries its county heritage proudly on its breast – but you'd be forgiven for thinking there's something familiar about the name.
Because, after the Norfolk Black turkey established itself as a popular dinner-table favourite, a dark-feathered chicken has been specially-bred to partner it on shop shelves.
And now having whetted the appetite of some of the nation's top chefs, the creators of the Norfolk Black chicken are preparing to launch the breed into the food service and restaurant trade.
The free-range breed is the product of exhaustive research and breeding by Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), a speciality producer founded with just 12 turkeys in 1988 by David Garner and Mark Gorton.
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The company now processes 85,000 chickens a week – and 160,000 turkeys at Christmas – at its plant in Shropham, near Attleborough.
Mr Gorton said finding the correct combination of characteristics to create the Norfolk Black chicken took several years of research and trials – and having discovered the perfect blend, it is a closely-guarded company secret.
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He said: 'For the last seven or eight years we have grown the Norfolk Black turkey for Sainsbury's and I thought: 'Wouldn't it be good to have a Norfolk Black chicken to capitalise on the success of the turkey'.
'We then had to create a Norfolk Black chicken from scratch, because there was no such thing. Keeping with our ethos, it was a fantastic opportunity.
'I spent a lot of time around Europe, looking at French and Spanish systems and all the breeds of chickens they use. We were looking for specific characteristics – it had to be black, it had to be slow-growing and free range, but above all else it had to taste good.
'It took me the best part of four years to develop this chicken. We tried lots of crosses. Some were a complete disaster. We were looking for a big plump breast, but strangely the cross that provided the best characteristics were both quite narrow-breasted. They were both types of French 'Label Rouge' chickens – but I keep the actual names of the breeds in a safe!'
The Norfolk Black chicken is a slow-growing, free-range bird, fed on a 50pc maize diet, adding to the rich flavour. The chickens are reared to a minimum of 63 days old at sites including the picturesque Thetford Forest Park Farm.
Lionel Halls, TNP's head of agriculture, said: 'What nicer place could there be than this to grow chickens?
'It is an exclusive breed and it has got this provenance from Norfolk. They are a slow-growing breed and they are fed a corn-rich diet to give added succulence and flavour.
'That, added to the free-range element, gives them the full package. It is not just another chicken, it has been bred in Norfolk by Norfolk farmers, and that provenance is really important.'
The Norfolk Black chicken is available on supermarket shelves, but TNP is planning its debut with the help of some high-profile culinary endorsements.
Mr Gorton said: 'At the moment they are exclusive to Sainsbury's as far as retail is concerned, but we are trying to launch it with the food service sector. 'We have got it on Galton Blackiston's menu (at Morston Hall in north Norfolk), Heston Blumenthal has tried it, Michel Roux Jr has had it on his menu at Le Gavroche (in London), and Manchester United has had it on the menu. So it is already starting to gain some momentum.
'We want people to go out and have a meal at a restaurant and order a Norfolk Black chicken, just like they would a Gressingham Duck.'
TNP has more than 50 farms and growing sites, six of which are organic. All are RSPCA Freedom Food approved and all are within one hour of the company's 35,000 sq ft processing plant, built in 2003 at Shropham. The other common factor linking all the sites is the founder's 'free range' ethos.
Mr Gorton said: 'When I started it was like a hobby. We were looking for a way to make money for Christmas and I was fresh out of Easton College.
'We started with 12 birds, and they did alright. We knew nothing about poultry at college so when we grew these we didn't squash them into a little square box with no windows. We put them outside in natural light with plenty of room and we assumed that was how to do it.
'Everyone was telling us it wouldn't work, but that is how we did it and that is how we kept our ethos over the years. We have never grown intensive birds and we never will.'
TNP picked up two prizes at the British Turkey Awards in London last week.
The Best Christmas Innovative Product prize was awarded to the Norfolk Black Free Range Turkey Parcel which is sold through Sainsbury's supermarkets. The product is a ready-to-roast parcel of turkey made up of layers of breast and thigh meat interleaved with layers of chestnut, maple and thyme stuffing and cranberries. It is all then wrapped in an oak-smoked back case which sits in a foil tray ready for oven-cooking.
The Best Christmas Premium Product award was given to the company's Rare Breed Free Range Slate Turkey which is sold in Asda stores.
This is a rare breed turkey that the company has developed. Director Mark Gorton said it would have been one of the original breeds of turkey to come over to the UK in the 18th century.
Business development manager Julie Eccleston and sales and account manager Andy Holt collected the awards on behalf of TNP.