South Africa’s hardbody chickens – they’re tough but tasty

Defining hardbody chickens can be complex and controversial but everyone agrees that, cooked right, they are deeply delicious.
Not all hardbodies are created equal. Hardbody chicken is a southern African food phrase that almost all of us intuitively understand but many would struggle to precisely define. Part of the problem is that, while we all think we know what we mean when we say “hardbody”, it seems that we all mean something slightly different.
There is consensus that we are talking about an older chicken that has tough but flavoursome flesh and strong bones. We agree that birds with such bodies are best suited to long, slow cooking methods. Beyond that all bets are off. Slow Food Southern Africa activist and former butchery owner Caroline McCann says: “Hardbody is age-dependent, and the phrase requires further clarification to be useful. You need to know how the animal was reared and its breed to know what you are getting. It is akin to a phrase like ‘free range beef’ – that doesn’t mean grass-fed. Part of our problem is that as a nation we often use terms quite loosely. In some cases, there are precise scientific definitions and breed characteristics but these are not commonly known. So, for instance, a Cornish hen is actually a breed but in South Africa most people call any large, fat chicken a Cornish.”
Within McCann’s overarching definition, any older chicken regardless of rearing conditions is a hardbody. North-West chicken farmer Marie Sethunya (sort of) agrees that: “What you get in supermarkets in braai packs is called a broiler. That meat is soft. They only live three to four months before slaughter. Now a hardbody, most of the time it is those birds (they call them Hy-line silver and Hy-line brown) they are exceptional egg layers. They live long, their lifespan is one year, six to eight months and their meat becomes automatically hard so people call them hardbody.”
Izaak Breitenbach, General Manager of SA Poultry, confirms that: “There is what we call an ‘end of lay’ bird. Those that don’t produce eggs anymore. We sell about a million end of lay birds per month. They are sold into the live market, mostly purchased by cull buyers who distribute by way of small pick-up vehicles into townships and rural areas. The taste profile of those birds is different and tends to be favoured by those who want the whole bird, heads, ...