• The Bresse de Bény is a French breed of domestic chicken in white colour, grown in the Bresse region. (Getty Images)
A chicken retailing for up to $65/kg might seem crazy, but there’s nothing quite like the French Poulet de Bresse anywhere else in the world.
By
Audrey Bourget

18 Jul 2019 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2019 - 4:17 PM

“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.

Somerlad's chickens are the closest thing to Bresse chicken in Australia.

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.

Michael Somerlad and one of his roosters.

You can find the Sommerlad chickens on a few selected farms across the country, including Milking Yard Farm in Victoria and Grassland Poultry in New South Wales.

“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.”

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