Proudly French, the Bresse chicken sports the national colors: red (comb), white (feathers) and blue (feet).
The ring on its left leg is “like a wedding ring,” marrying the chicken to the region; it is stamped with the name of the farmer and of the commune, so it is difficult to fake the authenticity of these chickens.
Why the fuss?
Because it’s the only chicken of its kind in the world: plump and juicy of course, expensive as expected, but most of all, protected with an AOC label under French and European law, just like vintage wine.
To merit the coveted label, each Bresse chicken must adhere to rigorous rules. For example each chicken requires at least ten square meters of yard in which to roam – nothing is too good for these designer chickens.
“It’s hard work and you have to treat them like babies,” said Véronique Pacoud, who runs a poultry farm in the Bresse, part of the Rhône-Alpes region of France.
“You have to keep the chicks warm, give them fortified food until they’re 35 days old, and then put them on a diet when they go outside so they get hungry and find their own worms and insects.”
At 16 weeks the chickens are brought indoors and fattened for another few weeks in wooden cages whose structure and dimensions are rigorously regulated.
Yearly inspections make sure all criteria are met, that no GMOs are being used, that no unlisted ingredients are fed to the chickens.
It is hard work running such a tight business. Véronique tends her chickens a dozen hours a day, five days a week unless she’s on watch, which happens one weekend out of every four. She works as part of a cooperative, whose members help one another and provide support when things get rough.
And they do.
It’s hard to believe that this tidy little industry – only a few dozen farms produce Bresse chickens – was almost destroyed ten years ago when the avian flu hit the region. I remember it well because I live only an hour away: all birds were locked indoors, and entire villages were sealed off, with traffic in and out suspended.
“It was terrible,” Mrs Pacoud recalls. “The chickens turned on each other and became cannibalistic, they were unused to being locked up. Each morning farmers had to collect the cadavers.”
Biosecurity rules have changed and now the Bresse is ready. If avian flu ever breaks out again the new measures will kick in: visits to affected areas will be curtailed and visitors will have to be disinfected, farms will be fenced and food will be stored safely indoors – but the chickens will get to stay outside.
The excellence of the Bresse chicken is not just a rumor, by the way: I can personally vouch for this fowl of fowls, this rolls royce of chickens.
Recently I tasted a poulet de Bresse in a creamy wine sauce at the Ancienne Auberge owned by Georges Blanc, whose cooking has earned him three coveted Michelin stars. These chickens wear a stamp of excellence for a reason.
Go to any market in France and look for these chickens. No one will argue they are the best you can buy, not just in France, but anywhere.
Photos by Anne Sterck