‘Papa’ was up to his old tricks. He saw me as a culinary challenge, not that he was planning on cooking me, but, as ‘un Anglais’ I knew nothing about food, and, if I was to marry his daughter, he was determined to invest in my education. At the time we were in Lyon; he wanted to teach me about chicken. But not just any old chicken, it had to be the ‘noble bird’, the chicken of Bresse, probably widely available in Lyon, but we had to visit Bourg-en-Bresse, fifty miles away, by bike! And today was market day. ‘Allons-y!’
The story of the poulet de Bresse, with its steel blue feet and bright white plumage, begins in 1591 when the bird was first mentioned in the town registers of Bourg-en-Bresse. Henry IV, having stopped off at Bresse following an accident with his carriage, tasted the bird’s meat and demanded its inclusion on his courtly menu.
Described by the French as ‘the fourth gastronomic wonder of the world’, the poulet de Bresse comes out on top because of its dense, flavoursome flesh. This is due to the strict government controls imposed in the region of Bourg-en-Bresse, where the chickens are given plenty of space to run around, producing a bird which is high in protein and low in fat.
My hoped-for beer evaporated as we hit town. Papa parked his bike against a lamp-post (the French, a cycling nation, don’t steal bikes – wives, ‘Oui’, but bikes, ‘Non’), and stomped off towards the market. Buttocks a-quiver, I cajoled my weary legs into following him.
‘Tu dois comprendre’, he told me, ‘the poulet de Bresse is the only chicken with an Ah-Oh-See.’ I didn’t see, not immediately, but then realised he meant that these pampered birds had their very own AOC, a guarantee of quality. But there was more.
After an initial period of at least 35 days, the birds are raised on a grassy pasture of some 5,000 square meters (minimum), which provides their primary food, supplemented by local cereals (maize and wheat) and skimmed milk for a period of 9 weeks in the case of young chickens, 11 weeks for hens, and 23 weeks for capons. The chickens are intentionally given insufficient feed so that they have to supplement their diet by scratching for insects, worms or snails.
Each chicken must have a minimum of 10 square meters of space and a single flock cannot exceed 500 birds. The final phase of the growing process is done in wooden coops in a dim, calm, and well-ventilated structure. The chickens are cooped up for 8 to 15 days, and capons and poulards for 4 weeks. It was, for a while at least, a life of luxury.
Laden with recently deceased specimens we returned to our bikes, just in time to see Christine arrive in the car. She had followed us, knowing her father and his cycling mania. She also knew I couldn’t cycle over a hundred miles in a day.
By the time Papa got back home, three of the birds were already well on the way to being ready. Dinner was the final appreciation.
The history of Bresse Chickens and why it is called the noble bird of France
Licques – turkey town in northern France where monks started to breed poultry hundreds of years ago…
Bourg-en-Bresse – what to do on a visit
Terry Marsh is a freelance writer and photographer specialising in travel and outdoors with a passion for cooking.