On eating and etymology

“Meat warning "

Last week we went out of town to meet friends from the UK for lunch, and I ate the most superb galletto alla diavolo I’ve had in a long time.

Alla diavolo is how they prepare almost all chickens in Italy. Go to a butcher, pick out a bird, and it will still have head, feet, everything. He’ll ask whether you want him to clean it. I do. But I also pay close attention, because if I’m not he’ll have cut it up the backbone and splayed it out before you can say knife.

Spatchcocked it, in English.1 That’s not what I want at home.

Out for lunch is another matter. This bird was succulent, with crispy skin, perfectly seasoned and an absolute delight. Having dealt with it, we turned to what it was. A galletto is a diminutive gallo, obviously, so a young chicken. Maybe only a young male chicken, a cockerel?2 Try as we might, though, we couldn’t think of an English word for a bird of that age. Did that mean the English don’t have a tradition of eating cockerels?

To me, it makes a whole lot of sense to eat young male animals, because inevitably they are surplus to requirements. Nevertheless, aside perhaps from capons and steers, and I’m guessing most people don’t know what those are, we tend not to advertise the fact.

Back home, I did some more research, and the closest I could come was poussin: “A chicken killed young for eating”. So, a loan word, and one that had not been Anglicised post 1066, unlike mouton=>mutton or boeuf=>beef. No wonder I hadn’t been able to bring it to mind.

Is there, though, a more precise definition? When does a poussin become a chicken? Of course there is!

European Commission Regulation (EC) No 543/2008 lays down detailed rules as regards the marketing standards for poultrymeat. First, note that an ordinary chicken is a bird “in which the tip of the sternum is flexible (not ossified)”. I don’t exactly how old the bird has to be for the breastbone to be fully ossified, and I expect it depends on breed, but beyond that point it becomes a cock, hen, casserole or boiling fowl.

More important, for my purposes:

— poussin, coquelet: chicken of less than 650 g carcase weight (expressed without giblets, head and feet); chicken of 650 g to 750 g may be called ‘poussin’ if the age at slaughter does not exceed 28 days.

I take this to mean that a dressed bird that weighs less than 650 g is a poussin at any age, while a bird that weighs between 650 and 750 g is a poussin only if it is less than 28 days old. Also, no mention that the bird must be of one gender or the other.

The Italian version has galletti in place of pouissin, coquelet. But is there really no non-Frenchified word in English?

I should add that I am now tempted to try a spatchcocked bird at home as it is quicker than a whole bird and offers more crunchiness and greater succulence.

  1. The word apparently comes from 18th century Ireland, according to this Guide to Spatchcock a Chicken

  2. And of course, in Italian as in English, it has exactly the same connotations applied to a cocky young fellow. 

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