After stopping to see my extended family for a few days in the south of England, I took an overnight bus from London to Paris. Overall, the bus was a good experience and going through the Chunnel was pretty incredible. Before I left I had no idea that they would actually load this huge bus inside a train to cross the channel. I got to Paris at about 6 am and made way to the train station to catch my train down to Louhans near Bourg en Bresse finally arriving around 2 in the afternoon. I spent the rest of the afternoon napping and wandering around the town, finally stopping into a local charcuterie to grab an evening meal. It may have been the best quiche I've ever tasted and paired perfectly with a wedge of local cheese and a few small, sweet peaches. My first meal in France.
The next morning I was picked up by Marie-Paule Meunier, the PR and marketing lead for Bresse Poultry. As we drove to the first farm I couldn’t help but admire the countryside we passed. I was exactly what I had expected from rural France. The region is an agricultural jewel with rolling fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers in every direction. Many of the houses and barns are very old and built with raw timber, mud, clay and stone, topped off with thatch roof. All of the Bresse Poultry sold in the world is raised in the Bresse region. Much like Champagne, the Bresse Poultry has a Protected Designation of Origin. Also known as an A.O.C (Guaranteed Origin Appellation) this means that even if someone outside of the region raises a bird of the exact same variety, they cannot sell it as Bresse. The qualification denotes not only the region and the breed but also the manner in which it is raised. I saw Bresse chickens for sale in almost every charcuterie shop I entered in that area. The locals are very proud of the heritage of these birds and I saw an uncountable number of chicken statues displayed prominently along with chicken souvenirs. Bresse chickens are easily distinguished by their muscular, lean bodies and bright blue feet. The white feathers when plucked leave a completely unblemished surface behind. If that isn’t enough, each bird is fitted with a ring denoting its farm of origin and certification. There are a little over 1 million birds raised per season that are shipped to many parts of the world, however most of it is consumed in France. About 30% of the birds produced are sold in Paris, while 65% goes to the rest of France, the remaining 5% goes overseas (the largest overseas buyer is Japan) most of the meat is sold through butcher shops for people to prepare at home. All of the birds are sold whole with the gizzards and entire body intact (including the signature bright blue feet) with various recipes and cooking instructions included. As a side note; Bresse poultry is not exported to the United States because the USDA has said that they would require the birds to be "washed" with bleach once imported. The Bresse Poultry association will not allow that to happen so for the foreseeable future you won't find them in the US.
The first farm I went to is owned and run by Michele. He inherited his property from his father who had used the land to raise cattle. Michele had no interest in raising cattle and his father hadn’t made much money at it. Michele came back to the farm at the age of 35 and decided to join the other 150 farmers who rear Bresse poultry. He says that he is happy with the work and successful beyond what he believes he would have been raising cattle. His farm was beautiful and he had thousands of happy chickens running everywhere.
These chickens have a lot more room to roam than most free range birds I have seen. As I said, the methods for rearing these birds is totally regulated. The chicks are all bred at the same breeding facility (which I did not see) for consistency. They are moved to the farms and onto pasture when they are just 1 day old. The farmers are required to designate 10 square meters for each bird. They allow no more than 500 birds per flock and they are required to have a large building for the birds as well that are used to protect them at night. On several of the farms I saw that they were being raised along with guinea fowl. The guinea fowl are paranoid by nature and set off an alarm call at the slightest hint of a predator. Fox, weasels, local dogs and predatory birds are prominent in the area and have been known to steal a bird or two when given the opportunity. Most farmers expect to lose about 10% of their flock to predation. The chickens learn the alarm call of the fowl and duck for cover. I got to see this first hand as a stranger on the property. These chickens are built to run and look nothing like the bumbling chickens I have been used to. They have long sleek legs and a graceful gait.
Feed for the birds is also strictly regulated. They are only fed about 30% of the total feed that they need and are expected to forage for the rest. They eat insects and seeds, grubs, worms and whatever they can find in the pasture. The feed that they are given is a mix of corn, wheat and dry milk powder that must also be raised within the region and cannot contain any GMO’s. The use of antibiotics is also strictly forbidden.
There are 3 different types of birds sold. The breed is all the same, only the manner in which it is raised changes. The chicken is just that a normal chicken that is raised for a minimum of 4 months, the pollard is a female chicken that is raised until it produces its first egg and finally a capon which is a rooster that has been castrated at 8 weeks of age and then raised for an additional 9 months (these are generally only eaten at Christmas).
Now for the tough part; the end of life care. I’m not referring to the slaughter; each bird is handled according to humane slaughter practices. However, each bird is required to spend a designated amount of time in confinement before slaughter. For chickens it is 10 days and up to 1 month for the pollards and capons. The confinement consists of a large wooden crate (a lot more room per bird that typical battery hens and shipping crates) in a darkened room. The birds are fed dry milk and powdered corn during this time. There are a lot of reports on the internet stating that Bresse poultry are force-fed while in confinement but I saw no evidence of it and got an incredulous look when I inquired. “of course not” was the reply ”we see this confinement stage as a time for the birds to relax. They have been working hard all of this time, running through the pastures, dodging predators and scraping together their foraged meals. This is a break for them and we make them as comfortable as possible.” The birds I saw looked calm and there was no evidence of stress. The breeders insist that this time is required to make the meat tender, because the chickens have spent so much time running and foraging, their muscles becoming tough with the exertion.
I admit I found this last portion of their lives to be a bit of a moral quandary. On the one hand, I don’t like to see any animal confined. On the other; these birds are on pasture from 1 day old, they have a longer life and more room to roam than most free range birds and are fed a mostly natural diet. I am not trying to make a case either way, merely reporting truthfully on what I found.
At the end of my tour of the region I took a day to trip Vonnas, a charming little town almost entirely taken over by George Blanc’s three Michelin star restaurant. The town is incredibly charming with flowers dripping from every overhang and an idyllic river running through the center. The chef himself was out of town during my short day trip but I did get to tour some of the property and I was given a warm welcome. Bresse poultry is featured prominently on the menu and is the key component of many of Chef Blanc’s signature dishes.
Next up is the region of Brittany France where I visited an escargot farm and a sustainable oyster farm.