“When you roast a Poulet de Bresse, the whole house smells so beautiful for days and days. In the morning, instead of having a croissant, you have a piece of chicken, cold from the fridge,” says Melbourne-based French restauranteur, Jacques Reymond.
The chef grew up in the Bresse region of France, near Lyon, where this type of chicken comes from. “There’s nothing in the world which can compare to Poulet de Bresse,” he says. And he’s not the only one to think so. The chicken is a favourite of French presidents, renowned chefs and even kings.
“There’s nothing in the world which can compare to Poulet de Bresse,”
The queen of poultry, the poultry of kings
French King Henry IV is believed to have been smitten with the poultry after a stay in Bresse. Gastronome Brillat-Savarin would later on describe the chicken as “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings.”
The Poulet de Bresse is the only poultry to receive the European Protected Designation of Origin. Just like Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, Poulet de Bresse needs to follow strict rules to earn its name.
First, it can only come from white chickens (of the Bresse de Bény variety) grown in the Bresse region. They also need to be kept free range for at least four months and fed only local food.
“If you go to our area of France, you have to stop the car if they are crossing the road. It’s very wonderful to see how free and healthy they are. They eat natural food like insects and whatever they find in the forest, and at night they’re given food to help them grow,” says Reymond.
They spend the last weeks of their lives in wooden cages, where they are fed maize and milk so they gain more fat.
A thick layer of fat gives the Poulet the Bresse its distinctive taste. “Every time I go back to France, it’s the first thing I want to eat. It’s so unique in flavour, it’s very buttery,” explains Reymond.
“For me, the best way to cook it is to simply roast the chicken in the oven. Or cooked with vin jaune from the Jura and some morels,” he says, adding that the bones should be kept to make stock.
Of course, quality comes with a price. Poulet de Bresse is sold between 20 and 40 euros per kilo (AUD$32 to $65) by French butchers.
With only 5 to 10 percent of the production being exported outside of France, there’s little chance you’ll get to eat the prised chicken unless you go straight to the source.
Australians don’t have to miss out
Several people have tried bringing the breed down under, with no real results so far. Even if the latest hopefuls would succeed in creating an “Australian Bresse”, the different conditions here would still mean that they would end up with a different bird.
“They don’t taste the same, they don’t look the same, they have nothing to do with Poulet de Bresse,” says Reymond of the chickens grown outside the Bresse region.
What we do have in Australia are our own free-range and slow-grown chickens, like the Sommerlad. Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad developed the namesake Sommerlad breed to thrive in Australian conditions, and unlike the Bresse chickens that end up in a cage for their final weeks, the Sommerlad chickens roam free their whole lives.
While your usual supermarket chickens are killed after only a few weeks, Sommerlad chickens are grown for a few months. “Even if we’re going to eat them in the end, they don’t need to have a miserable life. As a farmer, I want our animals to be happy and healthy,” says owner, Michael Sommerlad.
“Older people say they taste just like what their grandma used to cook,” says Sommerlad.
The Sommerlad chickens usually retail between $25 to $35/kg at butchers (though you could get a better deal straight from the farmer).
Sommerlad knows it’s not cheap, but encourages people to rethink the way they see chicken.
“If we eat chicken once a week or once a fortnight and cook it well, it would be a wonderful eating experience for a family,” he says. “Yes, on face value it seems very dear, but if you consider the bigger picture, it’s not that expensive compared to beef or seafood.”
The chicken is first ‘steamed’ in the oven under foil, so it doesn’t dry out, then the foil is removed and the heat turned up to give it a lovely crispy skin.
The secret to our version of this Thai classic is the extra layers of fresh flavours - the chicken is marinated in fresh turmeric and we make our chilli oil from scratch.
Phở varies dramatically from the north of Vietnam to the south. Every family and every street vendor has a unique understanding of what phở should taste like, what it should be garnished with and how it should be eaten. There is no right or wrong.
“Generously flavoured with winter truffles, this decadent French dish uses a breed of chicken from the province of Bresse. It cannot legally be imported into Australia, but you can still substitute it with quality free-ranging organic chicken breasts. Chanterelle mushrooms can be replaced with any small wild mushrooms you can find.” Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore
The chicken is cooked at 300°C for 10 minutes, so you will need a large clay pot for this recipe.
A little jewel of French family cuisine. Again the success of this recipe depends very much on the quality of the ingredients. Try to choose free-range or organic chicken and also a good red wine vinegar, the best I’ve found was red wine cabernet sauvignon vinegar from Waitrose. The cooking time will depend entirely on the sourcing of the chicken, factory produced will take 15–20 minutes, free-range/organic 30–40 minutes.
Planning ahead: The dish can be prepared 1 day in advance and then reheated in the oven at 150°C.