The Chaams Chicken
By: Ad Taks
The Chaams chicken, locally called “Kaamse kiep”, was been kept since the beginning of the last century in Brabant (south of the city of Breda) on local farms for eggs and meat. It was known to be a very hardy breed which survived well in the sandy soil of the Brabant province. Anexcellent layer, and the castrated cocks were famous for their tender, delicious meat. The Chaams hoen was neglected for some time and nearly became extinct at the end of the last century. It has since been revived by a growing number of fanciers, resulting in an increase in its numbers and popularity, to where they are now often seen on free-range in and around the village of Chaam.
It is not clear how the Chaams hoen was developed although it is known it originated from Campine fowls. All so-called Campine breeds are distinguished from other fowls by their characteristic markings, hardiness and laying capacity. Throughout the centuries Campine breeds spread from the coastal areas far into the Ardennes, mainly through monasteries that were situated across the country. In olden days it was quite common to name each breed after its area of origin. References to area-specific Campines like the Hoogstaats hoen and the Kempisch hoen may be found in a number of old books, along with the Chaams hoen. In the village of Chaam there is an ancient monastery farm, called ‘Peliceanhoeve’. Investigations indicate that the Norbertijn monks were responsible for creating and spreading the Chaams hoen. Literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries shows that the Chaams hoen was spread right across the western and middle parts of Brabant and was quite common there. At the wedding party of a local castle owner round 1808 there were Chapons from Breda (read: Chaams hoen). The Bertram company from Breda raised and slaughtered birds known to be Chaams hoen, because of the fineness of the meat and the superior flavour. The Chaams hoen was so popular it was often on the menu of the Royal family, and in 1881 King William III ordered a large flock of Chaams hoen from the Bertram company. The Chaams hoen was standardised around 1909-11 and in 1911 the breed was accepted into the Dutch Poultry Standards. Bredania, one of the oldest poultry clubs in Holland, held lectures about the Chaams hoen in the early 20th century, and they were exhibited regularly until around 1950. The breed lost popularity and they disappeared. Although there were rumours the breed was still in existence, and there were fanciers wanting to keep them, they remained lost.
The Chaamse Hoender Club
On 29 November 2001, the Chaamse Hoenderclub was founded in the village Alphen-Chaam in the province of Brabant. The club is run on a nonprofit basis with the aims of protecting and improving the Chaams hoen breed, and to further increase its popularity. The club undertakes some fundraising activities to help defray its costs.
All flocks required registration in 2000 and a breeding program was developed over several years. In 2001 four keen breeders started recreating the Chaams hoen, with the most suitable birds used in a registered program. Cocks were exchanged between breeders. Only the best few chicks were selected as breeders for the following year. This breeding program has now been in progress for several years and the Chaams hoen is showing marked improvement and is firmly on the way back from extinction. Today, there are 25 dedicated breeders in the club. New breeding programs are discussed at regular meetings and visits to each others’ homes to exchange birds, study the results of their breeding plans and to share information occur regularly.
The Chaams hoen
Chaams hoen come in two colours; gold and silver. From literature and from experience it is advised that each colour be bred true and not crossed. Once gold is crossed into a silver line, the gold reappears for many years. When selecting breeding birds, look for the following:
-good type in both cocks and hens
-broad primary flights
- orange eye colour
- white coloured legs
- blue nails with no white tips on the toes
- a medium-sized, single comb that is not too large
- flat, white, oval-shaped ear lobes
- no spurs on the hens
- a breeding cock should have good spangling as a chicken.
It is generally accepted that the female passes on type to the young birds and the male passes on colour, quality of the head and the laying ability.
Description of the breed
The Chaams hoen is a rather large, tall bird with a long body, full rounded breast carried well forward, and full abdomen. The standard weight for males is 2.75- 3.25 kilograms and 2.25-2.75 for females. The Chaams hoen is a robust yet elegant utility breed. The single comb is of medium size, upright in the male and gently falling to one side in the female. The eyes are orange surrounded by white skin. Black or dark pigment on combs or around the eyes is a serious fault, as are overly large combs and wattles. The ear lobes are white (indicating white eggs); Beak and legs are blue. The tail is carried rather high and the plumage should be tight on the body.
The silver males are silverwhite on head, hackles, shoulders, back and saddle. All ther feathers are white barred with black markings, in which the black and white is of equal width. The silver female has a white head and hackles. All other feathers are barred with black with the bars being of equal width as the ground colour. The main tail feathers of the male should be greenish black. The females may have some markings in the tail. The gold variety has identical markings to the silver, except the white ground colour is replaced with a deep, warm, goldenbrown colour.
The most common faults in the gold variety are: eye colour too dark; comb and wattles too large; and narrow tails. The eye colour this year has shown improvement. Some pullets have combs with a fold in the front. This is caused by the comb being too large and thin at the base. It was decided by the breeders to use birds with smaller combs in the breeding pen. The cocks are still a little small, but the hens already show good size and type. The colour and the markings in the gold variety are excellent this year. By selecting the best birds for breeding, spurred hens have disappeared.
The type of this variety has really improved and generally they are quite good. The birds are now up to the standard weights in both sexes. Larger 18mm and 20mm rings are now required. The required red eyes have been achieved. Combs are becoming smaller but are still a little too large. In the cocks there still too many birds with long or folded wattles and some have wattles that do not attach correctly. Squirreled tails have all but disappeared, however some birds still carry their tails a little too high. Some birds are showing poor quality tails which is a problem that breeders will be working to rectify. The ground colour in general is pure silver white, although this year we did see some cockerels with yellow tinge showing through. Many hens are too dark on their backs and we see hens with incorrect markings and webbing in the white, while others have black markings at the base of the hackle. Some birds show white peppering in the black markings and these birds tend to have weak and broken markings on the breast. The barring tends to break across the feather shaft. The birds do show a good colour overall (black and white of equal width). It will not be easy to breed the perfect silver Chaams hoen.
The members of the Chaams Hoenderclub are fully aware that much more needs to be done to improve the Chaams hoen to match the standard. Considering the breeding program only began five years ago with just a few birds of poor quality, the progress made has been quite remarkable. The Chaams hoen is regularly seen at shows where exhibitors and visitors alike appreciate the breed. Even those people who have played no part in recreating the Chaams hoen agree the breed is now well established and is worthy of serious consideration.
Recognition of Chaams Hoen
The Dutch Standard Commission for Poultry gave their approval to the birds that were shown at the National of the NHDB in Zuidlaren between 5-7 of January 2006. The commission accepted the quality of the Chaams hoen in gold and silver was good enough for official recognition for inclusion in the Dutch Standard for large fowl and bantams. Slowly but surely the Chaams hoen is being bred to the right type and size, with the head points and orange eye colour greatly improving each year.
A Presidium for the Chaamse Pel (read: hoen) as a product of the region
In 2005, in conjunction with Slow Food, a Presidium was founded. It consists of a group of local meat producers who are subject to a strict set of rules. Each producer may only fatten a small flock (150 birds to start with) of Chaams hoen. The birds must be fed locally grown grain and kept on free range. They must be killed between 17-26 weeks of age (compare that to a chicken from the supermarket that is killed at six weeks). The Presidium is coordinated by the “Vrienden van de Chaamse Pel” foundation, which oversees the rules and promotes the sale of the birds as being authentic and locally produced on a small scale. Because of this fantastic project we are able to raise our birds, fatten them and bring them to restaurants as a traditional delicacy. It is also good that the birds can be sold for some profit. When the birds are adult some cockerels catch our eye, although they did not as younger birds. This shows that often the birds have to be fully grown to be able to select them properly, but who can afford to raise 150 young birds? Our way of management makes it much easier. Slow Food was founded in 1986 in Italy and is an international movement concerned with promoting quality food and drink. Presidia are projects that promote traditional, local produce and work to save agricultural traditions, production procedures and cultural landscapes. Projects of Presidium are coordinated by Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Florence and are found around the world. The Presidium of the Chaamse Pel traces its history to the long tradition of meat production in Brabant and tries to return to the quality of the olden days. The foundation controls the trademark “Chaams Pel”, registers primary producers and butchers and enforces the rules of the Presidium. It also distributes the numbered foot rings. Many people from the region support the foundation with donations through the “Friends of the Chaamse Pel” or are distributors of the meat. The village of Alphen-Chaam and local business people sponsor the project. A celebration “de primeur” is planned for June each year.
Salone del Gusto 2006
The Salone del Gusto will take place October 26-30, 2006, inside the halls of the Lingotto Fiere Exhibition Centre in Turin, Italy. The Salone del Gusto has established itself as a way for consumers to get to know quality production and the largest showcase of agricultural and food biodiversity still present on our planet. Visitors can taste and purchase products at their leisure at the enormous market, where Slow Food Presidia will be located in one large space, divided by continent over a total of 300 stalls selling extraordinary products: from African bottarga prepared by the women of Mauritania, to highly coloured Peruvian potatoes, wild rice from the native tribes of Minnesota, yak milk cheese from the monks of the Tibetan highlands and (cured goat meat) from Cyprus. All the Italian Presidia will also be present, from the classic Orbetello bottarga and graukäse to newer Presidia like Castelmagno cheese and Monreale white plums. The Chaam capon will be available here as well. (see www.slowfood.com). As mentioned previously, the Chaamse Pel is the exclusive line of the Chaams hoen. In top restaurants as Wolfslaar in Breda and Het Jagthuys in Ulvenhout the birds are a specialty for those who enjoy a delicious meal. The birds live in freedom for over five months. They are raised on the grasslands of Brabant, fed and fattened with local grain. The birds are killed using a traditional method that helps make the meat especially tender and more tasty. The label affixed to the breast (see picture on the left), is put on the birds, giving assurance of an authentic, local product.
A unique project
Because of the Chaams Hoender Club a unique project has been realised. At de Kerkdreef in Chaam, an old Brabant’s poultry stable was built in which Chaams hoenders are kept, so the breed has been returned to the place where the Norbertijn monks created it. In this Chaams chicken house (see pictures below left and right) is a small exhibition room showing the history of the Norbertijn monks. The surroundings are sown with fruit trees and other plants which have been grown on these grounds for centuries. Visitors can enjoy these surrounding free of charge. The Chaams hoen has been recreated by a small group of dedicated fanciers, with the support of an ever-growing group of enthusiasts. A small piece of living history has been saved from extinction and we hope to see the Chaams hoen return in greater numbers on farms in the region of Baronie. The fanciers of today are similar to the farmers of the olden days. By returning the Chaams hoen to the status of culinary delicacy, more cockerels can be bred which results in a better selection of birds. This makes the breed stronger and stimulates people in the countryside to keep the old breed. In the region of the Baronie, where the village of Chaam is situated, more and more Chaams hoen are being kept. Some breeders have more than 100 cockerels running free which is a beautiful sight, helping recreation and tourism. It might seem simple, but it works! The Rare Breed Society together with the Dutch Poultry Club and the agricultural office are watching the developments with great interest. It proves that an almost extinct breed with great historical value can be made popular again.
It is of no surprise that in the Baronie an SZH recognised breeding centre for the Chaams hoen is being planned. The centre will be in the village of Zundert and be called: 't Chaams hoenderhof "De Baronie". The plan is to have the breeding centre officially recognised by gaining the SZH badge.