Approximately two years ago (2013), we began our journey of excitement, discovery and development with a breed of poultry that has enchanted gourmands of Europe for over half a century, the Poulet de Bresse. Or perhaps we should say, the Gauloise, for in all reality there is arguably no “true” Bresse outside of the AOC, just as there is no “true” Champagne outside of Champagne. Certainly we are confident in the lineage and genetics of our birds, having sourced the solely and directly from multiple Greenfire importations. However, without the native terrior, our birds, indeed all “American Bresse,” are at once the same, and yet different, than those raised in the Bresse region of France. But what we’ve learned about the Gauloise, the American Bresse, is that it doesn’t matter.
That’s not to say that genetics and terrior don’t matter, they do, they matter a lot. But just as France and the Bresse region has its specific climate, soil, minerals, vegetation…terrior, so do we. We are delighted with the heritage of our poultry, and work very hard to maintain the quality of our birds, their food, and their way of life. And just as with the wines of Bordeaux, there is no denying that California produces it’s own wines that rival those of the sacred Chateaux. So we embrace our own unique mixture of these ingredients, that of sand and clay and loam, of hot summers and foggy winters, of chick weed and nettle, merced rye and buckwheat, apples and ashley walnuts. While this recipe cannot mirror that of Eastern France, it provides it’s own distinctive, and no less remarkable, landscape of flavor.
We have also learned that we enjoy our method of raising these wonderful birds. Getting them on pasture as soon as they can handle the exposure, they spend their entire lives on our farm, foraging and eating the bounty that nature offers. We have embraced the idea of providing dairy in the finishing stages, often in the form of raw milk added to their finisher supplement, creating a mash that they add to their diet of grass and grub. We do not use the more restricted cages that are part of the traditional French finishing, choosing instead to restrict them to their tractor, but leaving them on pasture. This embraces the spirit of the French method, while equally appealing to our own sense of appropriate husbandry… a palatable compromise.
Finally, through the gracious partnership of our sister (or actually, brother) operation, Valley Fog Farms, we are improving our selection methods to ensure an heirloom-quality meat bird. In the end, these premium fowl have one, and only one, destination…the dinner table. As such, we must be diligent in our efforts to select only those birds that are suited for free-ranging; a balance between frame and form, color and conformation. Failure to refresh their genetics, to pull from a diverse enough pool, will certainly lead one down a dark path who’s end looks more like a tall cornish-cross than a magnificent creature of the pasture. If not managed and selected appropriately, the centuries of selection toward arguably the ultimate farm-to-table fowl can crash in a generation, leaving the breeder with a harrowing reminder of why commercial poultry are unsustainable.
An Update, Four Years On (2017)
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. If you are interested in what we’re doing today, go to our Store page and you can see our current efforts.