Poulet de Bresse (from 2013, updated 2017)
What kind of bird comes from a small area of eastern France, once inhabited by the Roman empire? Poulet de Bresse, to be exact. And like all good things from France, this natural beauty has its own Appellation d’origine Controlee, or guaranteed appellation of origin (AOC). First granted in 1957, it was the only AOC given to a chicken anywhere in the world, the Bresse AOC. The granting of this AOC was a means of securing the ultimate quality and taste of this unique, top-shelf bird.
The French Standard
However, the story of the AOC really began in 1936 when:
“the breeders, who defended an age-old quality, decided to
“clean the system up”. An petition was filed at the Court of
Bourg, and experts were called on: their study involved a
geological analysis of the soils in Bresse, the poultry-rearing
procedures, the determination of the breed which was “pure and
free from cross-breeding”. In this way, after a long, hard
struggle, the ultimate reference was the judgement pronounced
on 22/12/1936 which confirmed that an “A.O.C.” had been
acquired by the peasants themselves, on the tangible value of
their know-how, genuine, constant practices, ancestral
knowledge and customs, for a land which belonged to them
more than to any other person …”
As the association says, there is nothing “scientific about this production…[e]verything is based on experience and tradition.” The raising of these birds requires meticulous work:
“• grassy pastures:
• 1 chicken per 10 m2
• one flock of a maximum of 500 chickens, and between
two batches a fallow period known as a “health break”
• a building measuring 50 m2 maximum
• a pasture measuring 5,000 m2 minimum
and starting from the 35th day at least, the breeder provides the
chickens with cereals (maize and wheat) and milk products. A
chicken reared on grassy pastures (for correct conformity and
full physical development of the bird) finds its complementary
food there (grass, worms, seeds, insects …).”
But the real question: does all this make a difference? Writer James Martin in his article about searching for the “World’s Best Chicken,” noted that the price for a meal prepared with Bresse was “steep,” but “worth it.” Or, as Jon Henley said in his Guardian article, “Top of the Pecking Order,” “There are champagnes, they like to say round the small town of Bourg-en-Bresse in south-east of France, and there is Dom Perignon. There are cars, and there is the Rolls-Royce. And there are chickens, and there is the poulet de Bresse.”
Here at Sunbird Farms, we have acquired a small flock of these “Dom Perignon” of the chicken world. These are not the Blue Foot, the North American bird raised to look like the Bresse. These are direct descendants from the Poulet de Bresse of France. Our birds have nothing but French blood. However, because they are not raised within France, they would not meet the AOC, no matter how closely our husbandry measures might follow the association guidelines. To that end, they are often called American Bresse. It should be noted that the breed has been developed to mirror the colors of the French flag, red combs and wattles, pure white feathers, and steel blue legs. Can you think of another flag that is also red, white and blue? I think you can.
We are delighted to have acquired this flock from the original importers and look forward to sharing our birds with enthusiasts and fine restaurants as we attempt to emulate these traditional, pastoral methods. The American Bresse at Sunbird Farms represents our latest efforts in artisanal methods for raising heirloom birds.
An Update, Four Years On (2017)
The above really represents the launching point for Sunbird Farms. What a wonderful time, what a wonderful trip. After many years of working with this breed, we have learned a lot. One thing we’ve learned is that the best Bresse are truly amazing. We’ve learned that the Black Bresse is likely the best free-ranging example of the breed. They are vigorous foragers, excellent layers, with a definite conformation for the table. They’re great.
We’ve also learned that time and time again, our white Bresse would show signs of shallow genetics after a couple of generations. This isn’t a dig, but a testament to the extreme selection that has gone into these birds over the years. It is our opinion that the white variety has been so carefully selected for specific qualities over the years, that it balances on a fine edge. It can be the best table bird available, or a lazy, fast-growing, awkward franken-chicken just one step away from the Cornish-cross. We know this may not be popular, but we want to be honest about our experience.
This variety has “made” Sunbird Farms what it is today, and we don’t regret working with them even for a minute. But they just didn’t work out for us. They might work out for you. We continue to be in pursuit of the ultimate dual-purpose breed, and we often measure our exploits against our Bresse adventures. Many of the methods for feeding and finishing we have applied to other heritage breeds. We built our tractor method around ranging our Bresse. Nothing has been lost. We’re happy to share more of our thoughts, and will gladly discuss the merits of the Bresse.
So today we’re focusing on a few other breeds. However, most have not benefited from the historical marketing machine behind a breed like the Poule de Bresse. Regardless, their qualities are most impressive, and on balance, we believe better fit for our goals. Birds like the Silver-Grey Dorking, the French Barbezieux and the Light Sussex. Each of these breeds have their unique strengths, but they all excel at sustainability. If you are interested in working with these breeds, go to our Store page and you can see our current efforts.