From a Family-Owned Farm in Lancashire Come Some of England's Best Ducks and Chickens
Johnson & Swarbrick is a family-owned and -run poultry business at Swainson House Farm in the village of Goosnargh, in picturesque Lancashire in the north of England. They are pretty famous in culinary circles, with their corn-fed Goosnargh ducks (a cross between the Aylesbury and Peking ducks) and chickens being cooked and served by some of the country’s best-known chefs, including Nigel Howarth of Northcote Manor in nearby Blackburn; Mark Hix of Hix Restaurants in London and Lyme Regis; Chris and Jeff Galvin of Galvin Restaurants in London, Edinburgh, and the English countryside; and Sydney Aldridge of London's celebrated Fortnum & Mason. (The farm also raises wheat-fed duck and, for the Christmas season, corn-fed geese and turkeys.)
I was met with Northern hospitality when I visited Johnson & Swarbrick. Kara Johnson, daughter of the farm's late co-founder, Reg Johnson, is a very down-to-earth and affable lady who speaks fondly about the history of the business and about her father, who was affectionately known as "the poultry legend."
"Dad was quite a character and very passionate about the product," she says, "[and] yes, I do feel this helped in selling the product. Having said that, a lot of time was spent perfecting the feed and husbandry of the birds, and the product we now have stands on its merits."
She joined the business when she was 17, after having long insisted that she wouldn’t. Her father had just starting taking her out to meet customers and teaching her the sales side of the business when he passed away, in 2015.
The farm originally produced eggs and milk, then started raising chickens, which in turn led to raising ducks. "My grandparents bought Swainson House Farm back in the early 1960s," Johnson tells me. "Back then the farm had 20,000 laying hens, fed via our own feeding mill. Also we stocked a few pigs before adding a milking parlor with a herd of 100 cows."
In the mid-1980s, Reg Johnson met chef Paul Heathcote, who had just moved to the Preston Marriott Hotel in Broughton, a few miles from Goosnargh, after a turn at the famous Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons near Oxford. "In conversation," says Johnson, "Paul mentioned that he wished he could source a quality English corn-fed chicken for his menu. At this time, my father was looking to diversify, as he could see farming was changing and they were not getting a good price for milk, so after some thought and through trial and error, and a few tasting sessions, the Goosnargh corn-fed chicken was born."