As well as its teaching courses, Aylesford Pottery in Kent is renowned for making handmade functional ware. When a French restaurant school wanted to sell traditional chicken bricks to go with its very up-market culinary course, it turned to the pottery to supply them.
Chicken bricks used to be a familiar kitchen essential back in the 1970s and were made popular by Habitat. Today, thanks to a new surge in authentic cooking programmes, they are enjoying something of a comeback.
Together with his partner at the pottery, Billy Byles, Alan Parris has been making the bricks on and off for years, but today there is a big demand. “Once you have used one of these, you never have a bad word to say about how clean the cooking process is,” said Alan.
No one can be precise as to the exact origin of the chicken brick, although terracotta cooking pots were in use before Roman times. The Romans occupied England from the 1st to the 4th century AD. First establishing a bridgehead on the south coast in AD 43 they gradually spread north and east, reaching East Anglia early in their occupation. By then, Bronze and Iron Age potters had already been using the local clay for nearly 2,000 years.
The chicken brick was first introduced to Britain in 1964 by Sir Terence Conran of Habitat fame. He was also responsible for bringing us the duvet, the wok and the paper lantern. The brick was immediately popular as a wedding gift.
Why are the bricks so popular? For the health fans out there, the first thing is that you don’t need to add any fat to the bird. The brick acts like a mini-oven and will steam-cook the food in its own juices, with more of the essential nutrients and vitamins. The terracotta clay stores the heat without causing the fat to burn, while the dry walls mean that the meat browns as it would in a normal oven.
Alan said: “You should soak the brick first in water, but it’s not essential. You do need to put it into a cold oven though, so the cooking time is slightly longer. On the upside though, you can leave it in the oven once it’s cooked, and it won’t dry out.”
Over time the brick ages, absorbing the flavours and turning darker in colour. But you should never wash it in detergent or use it for fish or curries.
Alan explained, “When making the bricks, you throw the basic shape and leave it to dry to leather hard. Then it can be turned. While still leather hard, the next step is to rest it on its side, allowing the pressure of the clay to flatten the base. It’s then possible to wire through the brick lengthways, creating a lid and the main pot.”
Often the cooked food is served in the pot at the table. To start there is an element of experimentation as to how long it should be in the oven, but once mastered, it is a wonderful way of cooking.
by Paul Bailey
Editor, Emerging Potters