Bresse poultry, the cream of the crop of French chicken – Meanderings through France n° 212
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If you’re concerned with animal welfare buying and eating Bresse poultry will meet your expectations. Bresse is a small area of the French Rhone- Alpes region where a very special chicken breed has lived for centuries. Thanks to a careful breeding respecting the animals’ needs and giving them high quality food, eating a Bresse chicken or capon is both a taste pleasure and a height point of Slow Food.
Unlike standard chickens that are bred for 40 days before arriving in our plates, Bresse chicken are outdoor-raised birds for at least 150 days. Fattened hens enjoy a peaceful yet active life for more than 5 months, (8 months for capons). A capon is a rooster chosen among the most beautiful young ones, that has been castrated at the age of 8 to 10 weeks in order to get a fatter bird tasting juicier, more tender and with a matchless depth of flavour.
This uniqueness was acknowledged decades ago. In 1957 the Bresse chicken was the first poultry breed to get a label of origin (Apellation d’Origine Controlée or AOC), in France and still is the only one 58 years later. There are approximately 300 farms that can breed these birds following very strict specifications. The local breed is called Bresse Gauloise (Gallic Bresse) and if you go to Bresse you will easily spot them with their pure white plumage, red comb, blue legs and black eyes, running in the meadows. Living in small farms they escape overpopulation and it keeps them from diseases allowing the breeders to avoid antibiotic use. A good example of their commitment to quality!
These priviledged chickens have a minimum allocation of ten square meters each, but most often they get much more. They are fed with cereals, mostly corn grown by the breeders (soya and GMO are strictly forbidden), and milk. These are high-fat food but with little proteins thus encouraging the hens and roosters to peck wild little insects, earthworms and grass the way chickens have been naturally doing for ages. A true chicken’s life as far as can be from industrial battery hens!
Good food and good environment for a happy life. But everything must comes to an end and 2 to 4 weeks before a glorious ending in our kitchens, the chicken are put inside wooden cages called “ épinettes” in a quiet half-lighted room to be fattened. These beautiful animals are not taken to an abattoir and breeders take care of the slaughter themselves. Then in order to get a perfect looking skin the chickens are plucked using “dry plucking”. Everywhere else most chickens are scalded in hot water in order to make plucking easier, but in Bresse they take time to make it the traditional way. They even cut the down with scissors! But the chickens are not ready yet and the most beautiful specimens will go through the “roulage”. Using a piece of linen or cotton cloth each chicken or capon is wrapped up and tightly sewn and kept this way for several days. Thus it will not only take the shape of a rugby ball but the under-skin fat will slowly melt into the flesh making it tender and tasty.
Bresse poultry is of course available in local farmers markets but you can also get one on line. Search for “buy bresse chicken” and you’ll find dedicated websites ready to deliver these birds made for connoisseurs at your door.
Once you’ve got your precious fattened hen or capon don’t be impressed! Cooking Bresse poultry is easy; it’s such a wonderful produce that you won’t need a complicated recipe to get the best of it. You can cut it into pieces, cook them at low heat in a casserole without any added fat for 30 minutes, had three-quarter of a litre of dairy cream and let reduce for 30 more minutes. To make it sumptuous you can add some white dry wine such as Vin Jaune from the Jura area, and morels. Believe me you will never forget the smell that will invade you house and your friends and family will get on their knees in gratitude for this unforgettable wonderful meal!
Text ©Annick Dournes