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Bresse chickens still top of the pecking order

Tender and tasty, prized chickens from Bresse grace France’s finest dining tables. Jane Hanks traces the famous bird’s story

The Poulet de Bresse has a reputation worldwide of being the best chicken there is to eat. This year it celebrates 60 years of being the only poultry protected by the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), awarded in 1957. Later it was given the European award Appellation d’Origine Protégée. It is reared according to strict rules which the farmers say makes the Bresse Gauloise breed of chicken the whitest, most flavourful and most tender of meats, favoured by top chefs.

The Gauloise de Bresse is distinguished by its French colours. Its plumage is white, its legs are blue and completely smooth and its single comb is bright, red and jagged.

There are four categories. The Bresse Chicken or Poulet de Bresse is raised for four months. The Bresse Poulard is raised for five months and is plumper than the Poulet de Bresse. The Bresse Capon, a castrated male, lives for at least eight months before slaughter and the fattening period lasts four weeks. It must weigh at least 3kg. There is also a breed of black turkey, the Perle Noire de Bresse, which reaches maturity in December and weighs at least 3kg after seven months.

Bresse poultry are given plenty of space and spend most of their life free range. The Poulets de Bresse have to have at least 15m² each of meadowland and in the hen house there are coops are 12 chickens per square metre. Part of the secret of their success is down to their diet. They are fed on corn, wheat and cereals grown exclusively in Bresse plus dairy products including skimmed milk and buttermilk.

Some are fed on white maize, a type of maize which is expensive as it is more difficult to grow, but which has no carotene in it and so helps keep the flesh of the bird white, as there is no hint of yellow. The exact diet varies according to breeder. However, a third of their food must come from foraging for insects, larvae, worms and grass in the fields.

For at least ten days before slaughter the Poulets de Bresse are fattened in an area called the “épinette”, which is a wooden coop with reduced light and as much food and water as they please. The chickens are killed by electric shock and great care is taken not to stress the bird. Plucking and preparation is then carried out by hand. 

The Comité Interprofessionnel de la Volaille de Bresse, the local breeders’ association, warns to beware of imitations as ‘poultry from Bresse’ is not necessarily the same as ‘Bresse Poultry’. Authenticity is guaranteed by a ring on the left leg showing the name and address of the breeder, a seal fixed on the base of the neck showing the abattoir and a special Bresse Poultry label in blue, red and white. The resulting meat costs on average €15/kilo, so a luxury, but one which many chefs say is worth it.

Heston Blumenthal says in his book, In Search of Perfection, that it is the ultimate roasting bird.

The bird breeder

Rachel Roussel-Voisard is a breeder who raises 6,000 chickens each year. She says there are many reasons why their meat is prized above others: “First the Gauloise de Bresse is a very good race. Then we have been using the same techniques for 60 years and we have never been tempted to use modern farming ways, so the chicken lives longer before slaughter than most others. It spends a great deal of its time outdoors so it is hardy and it eats well.

“We give the chickens dairy products, but that is something farmers always used to give their poultry when nothing was wasted and they would have the whey left from cheesemaking. The combination means the resulting meat is tender, juicy and with good fats.”

She says local farmers take pride in what they do: “It is never easy being a breeder because we are at the mercy of the weather but it is a passion for us.”

The history of the Poulet de Bresse goes back to 1591, when the records of Bourg-en-Bresse show that the town offered two dozen fattened poultry to the Marquis of Treffort who had helped win a local battle – already the local poultry was seen as a worthy, special gift. The legend then goes that King Henry IV was seduced in the same period by the local poultry on a visit to Bresse and afterwards he wished his people could all have the chance to “put a chicken in the pot”.

In 1825, one of the world’s first foodies, Brillat-Savarin, a famous gastronomic writer, wrote in his most famous work The Physiology of Taste that the Bresse chicken is “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings.”

With the rise of the railways, the chicken’s fame began to spread. Poultry farmers in other parts of France started selling their own chickens as Poulet de Bresse and there were court cases, notably in 1936 with a bitter battle against a farmer from the Jura. 

Bresse farmers began to think they could benefit from the same label the vineyards used and on August 1, 1957 it became the only poultry in France to have an AOC. Poulets de Bresse come from a defined region – which is roughly rectangular, approximately 100km by 40km and includes parts of the Ain, Jura and Saône-et-Loire departments containing the towns of Bourg-en-Bresse, Montrevel, Pont-de-Vaux and Louhans.

Bird beauty contest
Every year, since 1862, the Glorieuses de Bresse festival has taken place in December, when farmers exhibit and sell their best poultry and compete for four prizes held in four local towns. The Crête d’Or (Golden Crest) is awarded at Bourg-en-Bresse for the best Poularde de Bresse; the Chapon d’Or (Golden Capon) at Pont-de-Vaux; the Bresse d’Or (Golden Bresse) at Louhans for the Poulet de Bresse; and La Reine Noire (Black Queen) at Montrevel-en-Bresse for the finest turkey. This year is particularly special because of the AOC 60th anniversary celebrations.

In each town there are opportunities to buy the prized chickens and turkeys, perhaps as a special treat for Christmas. Local restaurants offer menus starring the Volaille de Bresse and each town puts on other events such as boat trips, walks, sporting activities and cultural visits. This year, for the first time, there will be, among other events, a special tasting of the Bresse turkey at Montrevel-en-Bresse, and a fashion parade in Pont-de-Vaux which does, surprisingly, have a link with poultry, as there is an ancient traditional method of preserving the meat, “le roulage”, when the prepared chicken is rolled up in a sheet of material which is “sewn up like a corset and pulled very tight.”

Cooking tips

The advice from the Comité Interprofessionnel de la Volaille de Bresse, (CIVB) is to cook the poultry very carefully and for a long time. It should be cooked in its own juice to ensure it retains the maximum of its qualities which includes its tender flesh which, the CIVB says is impregnated with good fat into its innermost fibres.

You are advised not to prick it, and to baste it with its own juice every 15 minutes. Allow 45 minutes per kilo. When it is cooked, prick the thigh down to the bone with a fork. If the juice is pink, cook the poultry for a little bit longer.

It can be roasted, steamed or poached.

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