A text message pings in from Arnaud, a guy I’ve never met – “meet me on Smithfield Market in the morning at 06h00″ he wrote. Arnaud visits London once a month to look after the affairs of Loué, my favourite poultry company c/o of their marketing and sales arm, LDC.
A few weeks earlier another one line text had instructed me to meet Pascal et Martin at 09h00 next the church in Domfront-en-Champagne 72240 - little more than a hameau (tiny village) way out in the country 30 or so kms from Le Mans. I arrived early having driven through green tunnels of amazing forests – mental note made to return when the funghi arrive this autumn. With my window open, I swear I could smell that unmistakeable arôme of wild mushroom – it exists even when they’re not yet through, although the heavy rainfull will bring the season forward by several weeks.
I took a café noisette in the bar across from the church. Either my dress (I was wearing a tie), or the accent gave me away (I hope not) - “Gareth?” asked a guy sitting behind me – he who could only be from a farming background. 20 minutes later we were standing amid a flock of mature and beautiful Les Grands Maîtres – 3-4 days before slaughter.
The visit had an air of history and sadness – this was the Chambrier family’s final flock of these fine birds before their retirement. The Grand Maître bird is only reared by the most exprienced eleveurs, in small flocks and with the care you’d expect for such a special bird.
This is a pure breed, exclusive to the company’s breeding subsidiary, SASSO - the Géline de Loué. They are reared outdoors for 100 days on a 100% non-GMO diet. Flock sizes are around 3500 – that’s small by any standards – add to this there are still just 20 producers. So new is the bird that supply is still sporadic across the year – there are certainly none on sale over here yet.
In the final few weeks, milk (produits laitiers) is added to their diet and this gives the flesh and skin its superior texture and sligty blue/grey hue. Like the world famous AOC Bresse birds, they are also brought indoors for their final few days to ‘finish’ the meat quality – free range birds have well developed muscles; a few days of rest slightly softens this to optimise eating quality.
This is what defines gastronomy – attention to every detail, however tiny, with one end in sight – ‘le gout’. We have this in the Blue Collar Gastronomy manifesto. Without ‘le gout’, quite what is the point?
We made our rendezvous with Arnaud on the market and headed for home. 24 hours later, we prepared our two Grand Maître side by side – one oven roasted and the other ‘au pot’. It was only fair. This has to be a dégustation after all.
First their wishbones were removed – I keep repeating this and I bet few people take the care to carry out such a simple procedure which makes carving the bird a thrill. Then the wing tips. The texture of the birds was a joy to handle – it smelt fresh and we just knew the flavour would be there.
The roasting bird had two finger’s of fresh picked thyme, lemon peel (all white pith removed) and crushed garlic cloves (skin left on) placed inside the cavity with a couple of pinches of coarse, wet, grey Guérande sea salt. On a terracotta cazuela (more gentle than steel) and into the pre-heated at 200°C for 30 minutes or thereabouts - this I then dropped to 170/80ºC for the remaining hour or so. The bird was lovingly brushed with melted demi-sel Normandy butter before the oven and I took care to baste every 10 minutes – I kid you not. I afforded these birds the respect they were due.
Bird No 2 prepared ‘Au Pot’ was classic – almost true to the famous Henri IV recipe, minus the stuffing and cabbage. The whole bird was covered in cold water and surrounded by aromatics like celery, leek, onion, shallot, thyme and garlic. The bird cooked at just below the boil – there was not even the tinest trace of exudate (the off-white protein cook-out associated with industrially reared poultry and meat). After an hour in went carrot, peeled and cut lengthways for show and baby turnips (navets).When the bird was ready the broth was crystal clear and shimmering with tiny clear fat jewels.
A special guest was invited to join the dégustation - I swear there was a tear in his eye as he tasted the first fork of the roasted bird. At table were petits pois with asparagus, roasted baby waxy potatoes – and the inevitable broccoli for young Tom who’s vegetable choice is limited to an extreme. Broccoli comes onto the table at most meals.
Forever the one for absolute authenticity and recreating the moment, I served a Jasnières [Chenin Blanc] from the Sarthe region (tiny production and little known outside the area – a taste reminiscent of my other local favourite Savennières from Maine et Loire, next door). Neither are expensive – just hard to track down.
All at table came back for more – two helpings of two dishes.
The inspiration for the Loué Grand Maître – the pure breed, the age, the husbandry and milk finishing takes unashamed lead from the great AOC Poulet de Bresse. No theft here because Loué own part of the Bresse operation – Les Chaponiers de Bresse. In dairy rich areas, cow’s milk was often used for poultry, calf and pig feeding.
In 50 years, since the cooperative’s small beginnings on the weekly market in the tiny and pretty town of Loué, there have been just two chief executives. Pascal - my contact and confidente - is the son of Loué’s founder, Raymond Vaugarny. The president these past 12 years has been Yves de la Fourchardière who I interviewed at some length during the Salon International d’Agricole (SIA) in Paris earlier this year. See http://www.garethjonesfood.com/5171/the-grand-maitre-daffaires-whos-bringing-us-le-grand-maitre/
Loué shows how it’s entirely possible to bring to market foods with total integrity – and above all ‘le gout’. They went GMO free in 1999 – then invested +€20 millions in a dedicated feed mill known as Alifel, which they opened in 2001. I have visited so-called smart mills since then, for human and animal foods, but Alifel is from another age the others have yet to reach. The smell as one walked around was cereal sweet – a delight.
‘Sans OGM’ – meaning ‘without GMOs’ – went on all their packaging around two years ago – not just all their poultry, but their eggs too. This and more makes them world class. They’re pushing against the open door – +70% of French consumers are entirely anti-genetically modified foods. Time to wake up over here.
Even soya – my bête-noire for feeding chickens – comes from guaranteed non-GM farms through a GM-clean distribution channel. I forecast soya will be replaced with GM-free rape (colza) in the not so far off future. Brazil, like Canute, can’t and won’t hold back the tide of the new technology we are all meant to embrace with joy on our faces.
When I spoke out against GM at a major culinary conference in Minneapolis in the mid-90s, having been one of the chosen four by the UK Guild of Food Writers to lobby Government for the then ‘Five Year Freeze’, little did I know I’d be getting to know Loué with their identical anti-GM philosophy, so sneered at by all too many in the food industry worldwide, these few years later.
My address to the Americans was slow hand-clapped and tension palpable. I felt I’d failed to deliver the message. I learned that a Monsanto sponsored speaker was on the platform alongside me. I suspect other pro-GM plants were in the audience. Leaving the US the following day at the airport, many dozens of delegates came up and hugged me for the strength of my views. A 24 hour stop-over in Iceland eating minki whale sashimi, a long braised whale ‘au vin’ (tasted like good venison), roast puffin, golden scallops and guillemot breast took away the pain, but resolved me to fight on for the cause of gastronomy.
I still have more to tell on the Loué story. It’s a life lesson for those of my readers engaged and well paid to sell, make and grow food – hopefully some of my activist readers here, in Europe and in the States might feel re-ignited too.
Meanwhile, cold Grand Maître ‘en salade’ for lunch and tomorrow, probably the smartest of risotti, made with the broth of the two Grands Maîtres and my favourite Acquarello Rice (soon to be delisted in M&S, so on sale at a knock down price). Profitez as we say in France.
Our table did just that with its Grands Maîtres last evening. My passion for this organisation has me suggesting very seriously that I become their Ambassador du Gout in the UK for the good food media, chefs, smart retailers and, most of all, you my +6000 readers who follow these pages every month.
We are being denied fine poultry reared to these high standards – price for price,the range of pure breed birds I have found in France are actually cheaper than the British supermarkets’ free range 56 day old hybrid, fed on its GM diet.
Today, July 14 is Bastille Day – ‘vive la revolution!’ – in lower case letters so as not to offend. But a revolution must come soon otherwise people in England will forget the magificence that is a fine chicken on their table.