Monday, 15 October 2012

* Slow chicken from Rodrigues wet Mauritian taste buds

Raj Jugernauth
Rs 1 000 for a live chicken of around 1.5 kg. Despite this prohibitive price – 900% higher than local battery reared and frozen broilers –  the free-range chicken from Rodrigues is a hot seller in China Town these days.

« You would be mistaken if you believe that clients, mostly from the Sino-Mauritian community, would buy only one of these live chickens once in a blue moon. They will in fact buy the whole circular wicker cage in which these chicken are exported from Rodrigues. They thus get a stock of around 30 free-range chicken, a stock that usually lasts until the next boat shipment from Rodrigues », says one of the rare traders who is still selling these live free-range chickens at Royal street.

Together with his clients, he has become a desperate witness to the depleting stock of these traditional farm reared chickens which carry a unique flavour and texture. He laments and watches on as this species of poultry degenerates due to a high level of inbreeding.

He shows no surprise at today’s rareness of these wicker baskets which once strewed by dozens and dozens the pavements of Royal and Arsenal streets in the Mauritian Chinatown, giving a particular smell to the area.

« Prices have soared cause of the rareness of these free-range chicken which might soon get extinct », he says as he speaks on condition of anonymity to l’

« One cannot say that Rodriguans has stopped rearing these free-range chickens. Each family has a backyard poultry where chickens run about freely and feed themselves on grain corn, white potatoes, weeds and insects. But they are reared in small flocks, for the family needs only. Their small population has given rise to inbreeding and the species is degenerating from brood to brood», explains one Laval Spéville, a young Rodriguan who has embarked on the mission of saving the free-range chicken of his native island.

The free-range chicken of Rodrigues  is in fact an organic chicken with an international reputation. The famous poulet au miel of Rodrigues is made out of these chickens which Rodriguans call “poule locale” and it is a delicacy for tourists, says Laval Spéville.

Ex-employee of the Rodrigues branch of the Development  bank  of Rodrigues, he took a leave without pay and studied with success for a BSc in Account and Finance before starting to move heaven and earth in his endeavour to save the free-range chicken of Rodrigues.

He pleaded the case with the Mauritian office of the United Nations Development Programme and succeeded in securing a grant of 50 000 dollars (around Rs 1.5 million) for the Rodrigues Poultry Association which will now embark on a project of rearing and improving the breed of the local  free-range chickens.

«This grant given to the association under the GEF, small grant programme of the UNDP would finance the setting up of an integrated farm where the corn and white potatoes for these chicken will be grown», says Laval Spéville.

Beside this project, Laval Spéville and members of the Rodrigues poultry association would take up the challenge of starting an awareness-raising campaign concerning the dangers of in-breeding of local flocks and herds. 

« We unfortunately have no choice today other than than that of importing parent stock of free-range chicken from France in our endeavour to better the breed of our “poule local», explains Laval Spéville.

The Rodrigues poultry association aims at producing 1 000 free-range organic chicken each six months, that is with each brood.

In fact, a free-range chicken will take around six months to reach maturity, whereas an industrially reared broiler matures and is sold at two months old.

Unlike broilers, free-range chicken are never reared on feed concentrate or protein concentrate.
«Even if we shove down these industrial chicken feed down  their throats, they will not mature earlier or grow bigger. The free-range chickens belong to a species which never grow as big as broilers», explains Laval Spéville.

The project manager of the Rodrigues poultry association has already started negotiation with the Mauritian Chinese Chamber of Commerce for the sale of its free-range chicken. The price of this delicacy is bound to come down within some months.

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