If chicken is my most favoured meat, then Poulet de Bresse reigns high above the clouds – as is written of the Bresse chicken being ‘The Queen of Chickens and the Chicken of Kings‘ – the famous quote attributed to Brillat-Savarin.
Only a newcomer to these pages will be unaware of my affection for the Bresse chicken and all else that lists as poultry in Bresse-Bourgogne. As I celebrate Post 350, I remind myself that with Dylan Thomas’s words “To begin at the beginning….” the Bresse was where this column began in Pont de Vaux where I went to meet some poultry farmers one freezing cold December morning in 2010. Maybe Fortune will smile on me again in 2013 and I will be back to celebrate and record Les Glorieuses de Bresse.
For a most special of dinners cooked for The Rambling Epicure last Saturday, two Bresse birds took the centre stage. One raised on yellow maize and the other on the increasingly favoured white maize which gives the skin is unique blue white hue. Both, perfectly conformed with their typical long breast filet and long sturdy legs, weighed in at typical Bresse table weight of 1.7/1.8 kgs. These birds are raised on open prairies, each having never less than 10 square metres of pasture.
“Why walk when you can run?” one farmer told me. The breed is extremely athletic and range far into the fields away from their overnight roosting houses. This is one of many of the facts making their meat so special – another is they are fed on a dairy and maize ‘soup’, but never enough to sate their appetite for proteins like worms, insects, snails and seeds. Another being they are slow growing by nature and take 4 months to reach table weight and tone.
Such was our timing en-route from Lyon to the Vaud, we couldn’t shop at either a butcher or farmer as we were in the region at the time when all sensible French people stop for lunch at table. So the supermarket was the next best option and one we know genuinely honours local food wherever it has its stores. Bravo E Leclerc which does what it says about local sourcing, not paying lip service to a whim of the chattering classes whose buying criteria flit from food miles to fair trade, organics to E numbers, never staying with one long enough to make a jot of difference.
Next comes what to do with my two Bresse beauties. Roasted is favoured as the skin is as distinctive as the meat – see tasting notes in http://www.garethjonesfood.com/7205/a-poularde-is-just-for-christmas/
The birds sat for a long hour out of the ‘fridge to come up to room temperature and prepared for the oven by simply removing the wishbone, wing tips and hocks.
With the Bresse bird remember they are tagged with a steel bracelet on their hock and a tiny tricoloured badge of authenticity on the neck flap – take care for the latter when cooking. They have been certified AOC (meaning they can only be reared within the Bresse region) since 1957, so the bracelet and badge are proud adornments.
The roasting method is simple – high for first 15 minutes and lower for the remainder of cooking time – allow around 80-90 minutes for a bird weighing in just short of 2kg. Start them at 200°C and drop to a more sedate 160°C for the remainder of their roasting. Baste often from the first 15 minutes onwards – this ensures the skin colours and crisps like no other chicken I know. The gentle temperature cooks the flesh without ever toughening its perfect texture.
Next the sauce. Make a fresh, clear chicken stock using a small whole bird – no skimping for this sauce, so find the best priced Poulet Fermier you can. French supermarkets rarely are without a Fermier bird on promotion and with that comes the guarantee of minimum 84 days old, pure breed, no GM feed and, of course, outdoor reared.
Be prepared for the shock that this bird will cost the same or less than a British Free Range Hybrid aged 56 days. Expect to pay €8 or even less for a 1.5kg bird. Look for labels stating Poulet Fermier, Label Rouge, Loué, ‘Sans OGM’ and then ‘Blanc’, ‘Jaune’ or ‘Noir’.
My campaigning to bring birds of this quality and price to the UK has been knocked back but I press on relentless. The ‘Eggs on Legs’ 30/32 day hybrid, with its near identical 56 day old Free Range cousin offer neither taste nor texture – both are fed on genetically modified soya unless the label states otherwise – ask your retailer about the feed his birds were given and use your precious right to choose and so help the Blue Collar Gastronomy campaign to bring forward the well fed, GM-free flavoursome option.
All this and I am talking about a bird for stock.
Joint the bird and simmer gently in water – nothing else whatsoever – for 2-3 hours, never allowing more than a slight roll. Boiling is the enemy of stock. Taste after 2 hours and decide how much longer is needed to offer up a delicious life improving crystal broth.
Time to build some sauce. I am not being prescriptive either as you use what you have or can find. Given choice I use some chopped celery root, shallots and 1-2 garlic cloves. A piece of skin from a Parma ham adds depth – a good Italian grocer will give you some with your other shopping. Whole black peppercorns (6-10) and a sprig of fresh thyme or rosemary. Sauté all these ingredients for 15 minutes or so until softened – then add the stock and cook on for 30-40 minutes until the flavours fuse and the now reduced stock can be drained.
Now I added fresh chanterelles (now is the season) and a large glass of Vin Jaune. If you have the choice, then pick through the golden chanterelles (often called girolles in France) to take the smallest, most perfect little specimens. This is for the aesthetic and adds no more or no less to the sauce.
With the birds resting beneath an aluminium foil ‘tent’, finish the sauce with a nut of unsalted butter and a few drops of good white wine vinegar (if there is no good white wine vinegar, best have none at all).
Next to carve the birds. The French would more correctly say ‘cut’ as carving lengthways along the breast most times disfigures and offers up an ugly slice for all but a duck. With the wishbone removed, cutting the entire breast portion from the rib cage becomes a joy. So, cut with your sharpest knife into portions as follows – legs, thighs and the whole breast, slicing the white meat crossways, being in mind not to catch or rip the skin. The Bresse bird is best enjoyed when both the red and white meats are served as entities to appreciate their greatly differing flavour and texture, then napped with the sauce and its tiny mushroom jewels.
And dessert, because dessert there had to be. Unconscious of the inspiration, a plate inspired by an Alp it had to be. Our hosts’ village is known for its Rochers de Villar (meringues with a vanilla pod axised top to bottom), the raspberries were stellar, anything dairy is rich and creamy – and Clement-Faugier supplied the marrons. I will tell another time of meeting the Faugier family in Privas to talk chestnuts haute-gamme.
More on the AOC Poulet de Bresse: (1) www.bresse-bourgogne.com
Photo of Bresse chickens in the field by Alain Doire for Bourgogne-Tourisme – a sight to thrill and behold.