“Ecstasy was once the most intense pleasure. Then Wagner. Then Poulet de Bresse. Now it’s a cancelled meeting”
Rev Richard Coles in The Times
And the Reverend is not alone in classifying Poulet de Bresse as an intense pleasure. The famed epicurean, Brillat-Savarin, described the Bresse de Bény chicken as “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings”.
Not surprisingly then the poulet de Bresse has achieved both the European PDO and the French AOC – it is indeed a contributor to French culinary pride, with its blue legs, white feathers, and red combs and wattles reflecting the national Tricolore. Indeed, it’s because of these identifying features that the bird is usually sold complete with head and legs.
Why is it so special? Well – as specified with a PDO, most stages of production and preparation must take place in a particular area, in a very similar way to that prescribed for Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. In this case the chickens must come from in an area in the middle right hand side of France – just opposite Switzerland.The area (what was Bresse not surprisingly) includes parts of Ain, Saône-et-Loire… and Jura, which I pass through on a regular basis, hence my interest.
They must have at least four months of free range existence with at least 10m² grazing per animal. They are fed on a diet without much protein to encourage the birds to forage for insects. There are only a couple of hundred breeders and each must have a minimum of half a hectare of land.
After they’ve scratched around at will for their allocated months, the chickens are fattened up. The result is a bird with pale yellow flesh and quite a few pockets of fat – it makes it super-succulent.
… and also super-expensive. You can buy them on the internet at French Click where they will cost you £1.60 per 100g. Poulet de Bresse make up only 0.1% of France’s entire chicken production, and only 10% are exported. Some countries have import restrictions on poultry. So it no wonder that breeders abroad are developing competitive chickens – in the US for example there is the California Poulet Bleu (aka California Bleu Foot, or simply as Blue Foot chicken), and in the UK there are Chris Frederick’s Label Anglais (a Cornish Red breed) and Special Reserve (a larger french breed)..
For those living in the UK this last option might be attractive because, aside from the price of the Real Thing, the Poulet de Bresse also has the disadvantage of being very small.
How do you cook a Poulet de Bresse?
Since the flavour is its raison d’être, control any instinct to add anything overpowering – leave the garlic in its crock. Simplicity is key – serve just with crushed lemony potatoes and bread sauce. Cook simply, and at a lower temperature overall.
- Preheat the bird to a super-hot 250°C
- Stuff the bird with butter, tarragon and lemon slices. Smear the skin with butter and a little salt.
- Roast the bird for about twenty minutes (a bit longer if it’s on the large size)
- Then either turn down the oven to 180°C or, if you have an aga move it down to the baking oven and cook for another twenty or so minutes – I suggest you put the potatoes in at this stage so that absorb some of the juices.
- It’s ready when the juices run out clear when you put in a skewer. Take the bird out and leave it to stand – while, if you think it’s really necessary, you make the gravy.
What should you NOT do?
Resist the temptation to freeze.
“‘Do you like chicken, Monsieur?’ he asked me. He picked one out from a nearby table. ‘All of ours come from the region of Bresse, the best in France for poultry. Each is tagged with a silver label and a serial number. We store them in the refrigerator for four or five days after getting them, but we don’t freeze them. They do a lot of freezing in America don’t they?’
‘Malheureux, malheureux!’ M. Point exclaimed, clasping his hands in deep unhappiness. ‘Of course they do a lot of freezing. It’s such a hot country they have to, I am told. But you can’t expect to get a good piece of chicken from a freezer.”
M Paul Mercier, chef de cuisine and M Point, chef-patron of La Pyramide and considered by some to be the father of French cuisine, in an interview by Joseph Wechsberg, 1949, The New Yorker