The Bresse Gauloise is a French heritage breed of chicken, world-renowned for its flavor. Described as "the queen of chicken and the chicken of kings". The finishing method practiced by its producers is said to create a fat-marbled muscle, similar to wagyu beef. Although known for their meat, hens are highly productive layers of large cream colored eggs. For those of us who don't mind working like peasants, but still wish to eat like kings, I cannot imagine a better chicken. There are many breeds of 'dual-purpose' chickens, but I have never read about eating a Buff Orpington in New York magazine, and so we decided to start our sustainable flock out the tastiest way possible: with the American Bresse.
What's in a name?
These blue-footed chickens from the region of Bresse in France have appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) status, much like Champagne. These birds account for only .1% of the French market, and their care and processing are highly regulated. Here in California, I raise "American Bresse" — genetically it may be the same bird, but due to many factors including the unique climate, native insects, feed, finishing and husbandry methods, birds raised anywhere other than the Bresse region in France are simply not Poulet de Bresse.
How it went
Practically every article you will read about this breed will talk about "world-renown this" and "best tasting that" but then when it came to finding actual testimonials from other backyard hobbyists, the chatter stops. I was left with so many questions. Do they really taste that good? Is this just good marketing? What can I expect when keeping these? Why isn't anyone who isn't trying to sell me a chick for
$99 $29 talking about keeping them? Well, I still don't know the answer for that last one, but I feel like the rest lived up to the hype.
I ordered hatching eggs from a reputed seller on eBay. 20 for $60+shipping, not too bad. The eggs arrived in fair condition (there were 2 extras included, but 2 were also cracked due to rough handling) and after 21 days, we had 13 energetic cheeping puff balls. Following the general guidelines kindly aggregated on this post 'French Standards for Raising Bresse Meat Chickens', we raised them in an indoor brooder for around 4 weeks, and then moved them into a Salatin-style chicken tractor outdoors. Although they're nowhere near the commercial 'Cornish Cross' the Bresse chicks grew and feathered out very fast. If the weather had been fairer (it was November then) they could have been put outside sooner. They're impressively hardy birds.
The chicks spent the next month or so growing in the tractor and then were released daily to free-range for the last 2 months of growth. This period allowed me to watch the flock and pick my favorites to keep as brood stock. I tried to select not just based on weight and appearance, but disposition and 'spirit'. I wanted the most protective roosters, and the best foraging hens. Later, I'll cull based on egg production and fertility rates. Of the 13 hatchlings, 4 were cockerels and 9 were hens, so I had lots of options. In the end, 2 roos and 4 hens went to freezer camp, the rest joined the layer flock to be spoiled rotten.
Instead of going straight from pasture to plate, these birds are 'finished' a special way. I think this is what lends them their unique flavor and texture. Following the French methods, I built a wooden cage to house them during this process. The cage is small, allowing for 1-2 square feet per bird, but with a waterer and feed trough that span the whole width, so all birds have equal access. The slatted sides allow for maximum ventilation, and wire floor allows waste to fall through, keeping the birds and their food nice and clean. I kept this in our new shed, which was well ventilated, quiet, and dimly lit. The French feed their birds a proprietary mix of locally-grown grains soaked in milk. This method sounded unique to me, until I saw chickens being fed milk-soaked grains, while being kept in confinement before slaughter in this American video from the 1930's (milk-fed birds at 17:34). Apparently, this was a well-known method for fattening many breeds of chicken, which has all but disappeared (perhaps because the modern Cornish X don't live long enough to get tough?). In any case, after 3 weeks gorging themselves in the epinette, they were slaughtered. My largest rooster weighed 6lbs 15oz, and my largest hen weighed 4lb 7oz before being plucked and dressed. Smallest was 4lbs even.
We cooked our first hen that week, using this recipe found on Epicurious. It was the best home-raised chicken I have ever eaten. The carcass was long, but well muscled and covered in delicate skin. The abundant fat deposits seen beneath skin are just the tip of the fat iceberg. They really were just packed with fat. I imagine this is in no small part due to the finishing method and diet. I don't know that I will raise every chicken we produce this way, but it was a great learning experience.
After the whole experience, from hatching, to raising, to slaughtering, to finally eating, I can say I'm very happy with the end result. The choice of breed and the husbandry practices I learned along the way provided everything I wanted to get from a backyard flock of chickens. The freezer is full of some very tasty chicken, our egg basket is overflowing, and I'm already warming up the incubator for the next small batch of birds.
Mixing your own feed
Since I couldn't find any specific information on feeding Bresse Gauloise during the finishing process, I grabbed some data from the USDA, and designed a Poultry Feed Mix Calculator. This helped me develop a more 'complete' mix, using ingredients that might be grown in that region of France. My recipe ended up:
- 8 parts cracked yellow corn
- 4 parts white wheat
- 2 parts sunflower seed kernels
- 0.5 parts oyster shell
I mixed the dry ingredients together in a large bin, and then would take rations from that to soak in milk. The daily ration for my 6 birds was 3 cups of grains and 1.5 cups of whole cow's milk. This was prepared each morning, half was given to the birds in the morning and the rest refrigerated until feeding in the afternoon.
Read all about it:
While at the time of writing it's still fairly hard to find information on raising the Bresse Gauloise, foodies and authors have been writing about eating them a bunch! Here are some articles I could find. Great for reference or inspiration:
- Bresse France and the Search for the World's Best Chicken - About Travel
- Poulet De Bresse the Fourth Gastronomic Wonder of the World - France Discovered
- Top of the pecking order - The Guardian
- Poulet de Bresse: The best chicken you’ll never have (in Canada) - The Globe And Mail
- Home to roast: Are designer chickens worth the money? - Independent
- Kind of Blue - New York
- Poulet De Bresse: The Only French Chicken With AOC Status - France Today
- Chicken With Shallots and Morels - Epicurious