A young couple in the Western District raising pasture-raising hens for eggs are becoming known for their exceptionally flavoursome cockerels.

What is it?
Chooks at the Rooke produce free-range eggs and cockerels. It’s a husband-and-wife team managing small flocks of commercial egg-laying hens, namely the brown feathered HyLine and ISA Brown varieties. They’re housed in mobile sheds that are moved weekly to fresh pasture. Large doors open to the paddocks during the day to allow the birds to free range within a large expanse contained by an electrified net fence, and Maremma dogs guard the flocks against foxes and birds of prey. Running alongside the egg program is the cockerel flock. Day-old roosters that would otherwise be euthanised are raised in temperature and light-controlled French-built mobile barns. The young roosters stay indoors on a bedding of wood shavings, and as their feathers grow and they become able to regulate their body temperature, large plastic curtains are raised and lowered to allow breeze to flow through and the birds to become acclimatised. By six weeks, the young cockerels are outdoors, feeding on grass, insects, and other bugs, plus a mix of vegetarian grain mix, and are roosting in the sheds at night. After around 19 weeks, the cockerels weigh about 2.1kg and are ready for processing. Commercial meat chickens are typically processed at just six weeks.

Who’s producing it?
As a boy, Xavier Prime watched his mum and dad raise cattle on their farm and wanted to be a farmer. He saved up, bought a small flock of hens, and sold eggs at school. He graduated from school with a chicken shed and a fundamental understanding of poultry. Now he and his fiancée Kimberley Burridge run a complex and demanding business on the Prime family farm integrating egg laying and poultry with the beef herd.

Where is it from?
The farm is at Cororooke, eight kilometres northwest of Colac, west of Melbourne, in some of the richest dairy country in Australia. A layer of black soil rich in organic matter sits over deep, fertile volcanic clay, making for nutritionally dense pasture.

How is it different?
Prime’s ethics stand front and centre in every aspect of the Chooks at the Rooke business. In most egg production, chicks raised for eggs are sexed when they hatch, the females raised to lay eggs, the males euthanised by maceration. “For us to eat eggs comes at the expense of a baby male chick’s life,” says Prime. “So I wanted them to have a meaningful life. While it’s not perfect, 19 to 23 weeks is the best I can do.” Prime and Burridge also run just 94 birds to the hectare (the official free-range stocking rate is 1,500 per hectare). At 18 months, the laying hens are rehomed in domestic backyards as egg-laying pets, instead of being sent to slaughter. Prime is also a proponent of whole-carcass poultry, selling the cockerels with their feet and head on with liver and giblets included inside a bag.

Who’s a fan?
“These are beautiful birds,” says Guy Grossi, chef and owner of Grossi Florentino. “There’s real differentiation between the darker, stronger muscles in the legs and thighs and the lighter-coloured breast meat.” Grossi breaks down the birds, roasting the bones and making a golden broth that he then serves over with the roasted breast. To emphasise the cockerel’s gamy quality, Grossi uses spices such as juniper berry and star anise on the full-flavoured cuts of leg and thigh.

Jo Barrett, chef and co-owner of Little Pickett in Lorne, meanwhile, describes the birds as “awesome”.  “You can’t get a product that’s more ethical, more nutritional, and delicious than this,” she says. One of her favourite ways of cooking the birds is in a coq au vin pie she makes by blanching the whole bird, removing the breast and legs, and making a rich stock from the carcass. The legs, feet on, are marinated in red wine, then cooked in the reduced stock with the addition of mushrooms and Kaiserfleisch. The succulent meat from the leg is removed and reunited with the breast meat, and the juices are thickened with cornflour and baked in a fillo. “I wanted a lighter pastry, not a butter-based pastry, to let the complex flavour of the cockerel be the highlight.” Barrett has also prepared a recipe for rooster soup with mushroom and buckwheat noodles for her new book Sustain, published by Hardie Grant.

Where can I get it?
Order eggs and cockerels online at chooksattherooke.com or in-store at UmiTochi in Balwyn North, and Hagen’s Organics at Beaumaris, South Melbourne Market, Prahran Market, Queen Victoria Market and Bentleigh.

By Richard Cornish