The food world is full of connoisseurs – steak fans, oyster mavens, cheese authorities, whisky and wine snobs, even soup Nazis. But have you ever once met a chicken aficionado?
For a long time, I felt there really wasn’t a whole lot of difference between one roasted chicken and another. They all seemed pretty good to me – kind of like pizza (“The worst pizza I’ve ever had was pretty darn good.”).
Occasionally I tried roasting a better bird – organic, pasture-raised, “walking about” birds, etc. They were twice the price and marginally better than the garden variety supermarket industrial chicken.
Some years ago, however, I happened to be on a road trip through France and quite by accident arrived in Bourg-en Bresse for a night. I had a vague notion that the region was known for a specific breed of something-or-other, and then I saw a sign, followed by another and another advertising “Poulet de Bresse.”
Of course, that evening I had to try one. I selected a restaurant at random (can’t even remember the name), and Joanne and I ordered our first Bresse chicken. WHAT A MOMENT! I never knew chicken could be so delicious – dense, but not tough; fat, but not fatty; intense but not gamey. Ours was served smoothed out with morel mushrooms and I suspect a ton of butter, heavy cream, shallots and maybe crème fraiche, Marasala wine or possibly Madeira. The restaurant paired it with unlimited Beaujolais from nearby Burgundy.
When I got back to the States, I made up my mind to find this Bresse chicken that I’d fallen in love with. I STRUCK OUT. Supermarkets hadn’t heard of it. Butchers said it sounded familiar, but they had no idea how to go about getting it. I was just screwed.
I’ve since learned that the French guard these birds so jealously that their eggs CANNOT be taken from their home region. Attempts to smuggle them out have proved futile. And not only is it a legally defined region of France, there are specific rules and regulations concerning how and what Bresse chickens are fed – milk solids, grains, insects, mustard seed and alfalfa, and secret all-natural stuff nobody would talk to me about.
The bird has actually achieved “Appelation d’Origine Controllée” status. Brillat-Savarin, the 19th century French epicure dubbed poulet de Bresse “the queen of chickens….the chicken of kings.”
I can’t say I blame France for keeping these chickens to themselves. Not only do they taste great, but with their white feathers, bright red comb, and steely blue feet, their appearance is as French as the country’s flag.
Attempts have been made to duplicate the breed over here. A Canadian, Peter Thiessen, developed a breed of what he called “Blue-foot chickens” in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, his entire flock was destroyed in 2004 due to the avian flu. Luckily, a few weeks before his birds were destroyed, he sold some breeders to someone in California. I understand that they can be purchased from D’Artagnan Foods over the internet for about $25 each. I’ve also heard that Thomas Keller serves Blue-feet chicken at Per Se in New York. He might sell you a wing for $25.
Poor you, you’ll just have to go to Paris for your poulet de Bresse. Note, however, that you won’t find them just anywhere. Most restaurants serve humbler birds. In fact, I remember a friend telling me about a time he and his wife ate at a simple bistro, and she asked the waiter – whose English was rudimentary – for a grilled chicken breast.
He told her, “I’m sorry, Madame, we do not have chicken Bresse.”
“You don’t have a chicken breast?”
“It is impossible, Madame,” he said, shutting her down.
A while later, another waiter brought a roast chicken to someone at a nearby table. She indignantly asked him, “What is THAT?”.
So where can you find Breese chicken in Paris? I’ll share a few of my favorite places at the end of this post. Give ‘em a shot. You’ll be pleased.
One thing to know, however: When you order a Bresse chicken, you’re typically served the whole bird – easily enough for up to three people. Often, your chicken will be ceremoniously wheeled to you on a trolley, anointed and basted with buttery jus and carved before your eyes. They’re not cheap – typically about 100 euros a bird – but it’s an entrée for three. Sides are often included in the price. And it’s the best chicken in the world. So don’t balk. Just order it, eat it, and love it.
Here are three restaurants serving poulet de Bresse that I can personally vouch for……listed in no particular order…..
32 rue Vertbois
48 87 77 48
Metro… Arts et Metiers/Temple
Le RELAIS PLAZA
Hotel Plaza Athénée
25 av Montaigne
Metro …Alma Marceau/Franklin D. Roosevelt
53 67 64 00
(Request a corner seat on one of the banquettes….see photo)
Le COQ RICO
98 rue Lepic
42 59 82 89
(Joanne and I sat at the Community Table…..fun…fun…see photo)
NOTE: At Le Coq Rico, pretty much all you can get is chicken…served several different ways….they have a duck and a pigeon preparation too…..but poulet de Breese rules here.
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