What to Eat in France: Poulet de Bresse, or Chicken from Bresse with Cream and Mushrooms
J’ai la chair de poule. / I have goose bumps.
Quand les poules auront des dents. / Literally, “when chickens have teeth,” meaning that will never happen.
Bresse chicken or poulet de Bresse has had an A.O.C. since 1957, which defines the way in which they are raised as well as the geographic zone in which they can be raised.
It is a French breed known as Bresse-Gauloise. The feathers are generally white, and they have a red, crenelated comb. They have blue feet and a white beard. About a million chickens are sent to market every year.
Poulet de Bresse and other poultry from Bresse — including guinea fowl, capon, hen and even turkey — is raised under strictly defined conditions, but it is not organic. They are free range and have a grass-based diet, but also eat worms and mollusks. Final fattening is with cereals and milk products in wooden cages. Bresse poultry cannot be slaughtered under 5 months of age if they are to bear the A.O.C.
Each Bresse chicken has a ring on which is marked the producer’s first and last name and address. This is attached to the left leg of the chicken.
The neck bears a red, white and blue seal bearing the first and last name or company name of the shipper who prepared the chicken.
There are only about 250 producers and 10 poultrymen, since there are generally only two chickens per breeder lot.
Bresse chickens weigh 5 to 6 pounds.
They are cherished in France and the French are willing to pay the price. They have more flesh — more white, in particular, on them than an ordinary chicken, so there is little waste in terms of bones and fat. Their flesh is very tender, to the point that they French described it as “melting in the mouth.” It is therefore referred to as le moelleux or “the tender one” in Paris food markets. The flesh comes away from the bone quite easily, making it easy to eat.
The taste is refined, thanks to its race and the way it is raised, as well as to its feeding.
Chef Georges Blanc in Vonnas has made poulet de Bresse champion. He is best known for his poulet à la crème.
1 Bresse chicken, 5-6 pounds, cut up
1 medium-size onion
10 white mushrooms (or morels)
2 cloves garlic
7 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup dry white wine
2 pints crème fraîche or extra thick cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Large sauté pan
Large oven dish
Time: 45 minutes – 15 minutes preparation and 30 minutes cooking
- Peel the onion. Quarter it.
- Cut “earthy” end off mushrooms. Wash. Quarter them.
- Crush unpeeled garlic with a knife blade.
- Over medium heat, melt half the butter in sauté pan. Add the chicken legs. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook, turning from time to time, until golden brown on all sides.
- Add onion, mushrooms and garlic.
- Sprinkle on flour and mix well, stirring constantly.
- Pour in the white wine and deglaze the pan, scraping pan with a wooden spatula.
- Continue cooking over low heat to reduce sauce, stirring constantly, making sure all the caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan are incorporated into the sauce.
- Add the crême fraîche. Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, preheat oven to 350°F.
- Salt and pepper the chicken back and breast to taste. Place in an oven dish of suitable size. Melt the remaining butter. Pour it over the chicken from drying out.
- Bake for 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Remove the breast from the bones.
- Use a slotted spoon or metal spatula to remove the chicken legs from the sauce. Set aside.
- Pour the sauce through a sieve or chinois.
- Taste the sauce. Add salt and pepper if necessary.
- Pour the sauce back into the sautée pan and bring to a boil and lower heat.
- Add the cooked chicken and turn for 2 or 3 minutes or until chicken is well coated.
- Serve hot with Vonnas-style potato pancakes or rice pilaf.
Note: Georges Blanc usually uses morel mushrooms instead of white mushrooms, giving it an earthier taste. Bresse chickens are rare in the U.S., but there are similar breeds that give good results. Ask your local farmers and producers.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.