“Tastes like chicken” became a catchphrase for any meat that seemingly had little taste around a decade or two ago on the BBC Radio 2 programme presented by late-lamented legend Terry Wogan, but fast forward from then to just a few months ago and it was a humble chicken fillet that beat all manner of infused and sauce-enhanced rivals to carry off the Supreme Champion title in the Taste awards through Deliciously Yorkshire.
It was yet another chicken feather in the cap for Middleton-on-the-Wolds based Soanes Poultry that has consistently been at the top of the pecking order when it comes to prizes in recent months whether in business industry awards, environmental initiatives, processing achievements or as an employer. While each will have brought about great pride, for general manager Nigel Upson, there is little doubt that the Taste award will have meant a great deal.
“We’re always confident in the quality of our product but to carry off the major award with a plain meat product in the face of hundreds that can influence in other ways is a truly amazing feeling. If I knew exactly what it was that convinced the judges, I probably wouldn’t tell anyone anyway. We know from our customers that our chicken tastes better than others because that’s what they tell us regularly and it’s why they keep coming back, but is it the local wheat they’re fed? Is it the local water? Or has it anything to do with David Hockney’s big skies? Who knows?
“What I can tell you is that the business was started by local farmer Tom Soanes in 1947 and that Andrew Soanes, my boss, is still farming. It was Andrew’s father Clive who it is generally acknowledged masterminded where the poultry business is today with all our chickens grown to what we refer to as Red Tractor status plus one as we go that bit further on ensuring all health standards are impeccable. They are all grown within 24 miles of the factory here at Middleton-on-the-Wolds where we are one of the largest local employers. We have two local free-range sites and would like more if we can hook up with other local producers keen to diversify who are prepared to meet our health standards. Where chicken are grown inside we ensure they are well provided for at all times with food, light, water and space.”
You won’t find the Soanes name in stores of any of the major retailers. They have built their business on the back of supplying farm shops, restaurants and local butchers.
“Farm shops and butchers are important markets for us. We feel that’s where the consumer generally appreciates a better eating experience and can find out more about the provenance of what they are buying. We employ an area farms manager who makes sure that all chicken are grown to our standards and we always strive to be one step ahead of any legislation and undertake it even better than what is laid down in any guideline.
“Our strategy is to remain what I would describe as the biggest of the smaller processors. We’re probably in the third tier where we are presently as a specialist, niche processor with a very tasty product from a family-owned enterprise that offers real Yorkshire provenance. We understand that the conscientious consumer really does care about where food comes from and looks forward to tasting meat that has come from well-cared-for livestock.”
The roast chicken in a bag for less than a fiver picked up from your local supermarket is not the Soanes way.
“It’s not where we’re at. We don’t finish our birds as small as that. They’re not really mature and because of this they wouldn’t reflect the flavour that we are looking for. Our chickens are mature and harvested when they are ready usually at between 34 and 49 days. Selection is an important part of maintaining our quality of produce.
“That’s why although we faced stiff competition in the Taste Awards from 350 other products our grain-fed chicken fillet excellently cooked by the chef took the title. It wasn’t down to just one chicken, it was down to the efforts all of our team and growers go to in producing quality every day.”
Soanes Poultry chicken is sold throughout the UK with 15 per cent of its direct sales made in Yorkshire and a further 40 per cent to similar types of business such as farm shops, butchers and restaurants to other counties through wholesalers. The rest of their customers are manufacturers who use chicken in other products.
“At the end of the day we are a business that looks after our chickens. We farm, process and distribute them and consumers like what we do and what we provide.
“We’re a minnow in terms of the big boys and we’re happy for it to be that way and to keep rearing and processing what the Taste Award people at Deliciously Yorkshire enjoy eating. It all goes back to what Tom started and Clive took further.”