If you really like chicken (or like real chicken), the rustically elegant Poulet de Bresse is one of France’s most renowned culinary gems.
A NOBLE BREED
The feathered icon of France is so delicious that even Brillat-Savarin, who wrote Physiologie du goût (1825) and was one of the biggest gourmets in French food history, referred to it as “la reine des volailles et volaille des rois”.
Boasting the national colors (a bright red comb, snow-white feathers and sturdy blue claws) these noble chickens roam freely in an idyllic paradise of forests and meadows measuring a royal 3536 square kilometers. To the south of the area is the Ain, to the north the Saône-et-Loire and to the east the Jura. There, in the skilled and loving hands of some 170 éleveurs, the ‘Gauloise de Bresse’ peacefully and blissfully grows into one of the world’s most prized delicacies.
From their very first day on earth, the fluffy chicks are thoroughly spoilt, and after the 35th day, they are allowed to roam freely from sunrise to sunset. Next to their ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet of tasty insects, aromatic grass and fat worms and snails, they are also given buttermilk and fed a healthy and locally produced diet of grains, corn and wheat. Each chicken has at least ten square metres of space to frolic around on, and at night they sleep soundly in a covered and spacious den. Their freedom is only restricted at the end of their lives when, depending on their sort, they are held in a wooden cage (an épinette) for anywhere from ten days to a month. There, the chickens are allowed to ‘rest’. They don’t do much besides eat and sleep. This results in an extra layer of fat that gives them their characteristic taste.
Though the history of this most noble breed of chickens goes back to Roman times, it wasn’t until 1591 that the breed was officially named in the history of Bourg-en-Bresse. On the 12th of November of that year, the Marquise of Treffort received two dozen “fat poultry” from the people as a token of appreciation for defending them from the troops from the Savoie. King Henri IV stayed in Bresse and was so smitten by the taste of the chickens that he promised to all the French that they would be able to enjoy ‘poule au pot’ every Sunday.
AOC SINCE 1957
Bresse chickens received their A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, since 2007 Appellation d’Origine Protégée or A.O.P.) in 1957. Today, the French consider it the fourth gastronomic world wonder. There is even an association of breeders that ensures the authenticity and quality of Bresse chickens, the CIVB (Comité Interprofessionnel de la Volaille de Bresse), with at their head respected chef Georges Blanc. We can thank his grandmother for the classic recipe ‘poulet de Bresse à la crème’.
If you would like to treat yourself to one of these exceptional chickens, you must keep in mind that both buying and preparing it will require some know-how. The first thing you should keep in mind is that there are three different types of Bresse chickens: the normal variety (poulet) which lives four months and weighs approximately 1.2 kilos, and the two larger varieties that are mostly popular during the holidays: de poularde (lives five months and weighs 1.8 kilos) and the capon (a huge capon that lives eight months and weighs in at a hefty three kilos). Turkey (dinde de Bresse) is also available.
Each bird has a ring around its left claw with the name and address of its breeder (éleveur), the A.O.P symbol, and a red-white-and-blue sticker with the name ‘Bresse’. If the chicken still has its head and claws, you know you are definitely dealing with the real deal. Most, however, are sold ready for cooking. The chicken demands to be roasted slowly and basted every fifteen minutes. You can also divide the chicken into pieces, fry it in butter and serve it with a cream sauce. Google ‘poulet à la crème Georges Blanc’ for the master’s own recipe. You will be in for a truly unforgettable meal.
Image courtesy of: Alain DOIRE / Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Tourisme