The most important factor for a good tasting chicken? Their age.by Wendell Steavenson / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Spring has arrived in the French countryside. Neon bright leaf buds sunlit against dark grey thunderheads, tender green grass growing like a lush carpet, fields striped with yellow rape. In April, weeks of rain had swollen the Saône river, a tributary of the Rhône. We drove across the bridge at Chalon-sur-Saône, into the flat alluvial plain of Bresse. Hamlets of low timber-and-brick farmhouses huddled in the downpour; low-lying fields had become swamped, turning them into mud lakes. In the fields, white chickens—the famous Poulet de Bresse—pecked at worms. Poulet de Bresse are distinguished by being the only chickens in France to have their own appellation d’origine contrôllé. They have white feathers, blue legs and red combs making them practically the emblem of the French Republic. According to the strict criteria of their premium label, each bird must be raised in an open field with at least 10m2 of space, fed on cereal grown only in the Bresse region and be fattened in crates for their last two weeks.
We had rainbow weather: downpours and bright sunny skies. At the market in Louhans I bought, naturally, a handsome Poulet de Bresse. It weighed almost two kilograms. The seller told me to roast it slowly at a low temperature for almost two hours.
“I always thought the Poulet de Bresse is overrated. I found them to be bony,” said Peter Bouckaert, our host who has a weekend house overrun with children, guests, banks of rosemary, sheep, chickens, geese and ducks. Peter is Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch and is an amateur cook with a close affinity for the nuances of an exceptional ragu (“it is essential to add parmesan rinds”) and a culinary reference library several times larger than mine. He shook his head at my purchase, which I planned to roast. “It will hardly feed four adults and three kids, what else is there to eat”?
He cheered up a little when I fried a pile of frog legs—Bresse’s other speciality—for lunch, and in the afternoon he took me to see a neighbour of his, Michel—atypically cheerful for a French farmer. Michel showed us his “Cou-nu” (naked neck) chickens. His operation is—in the traditional manner of the disingenuous French peasant economy—entirely off the books. He used to raise Poulet de Bresse (and his son still does), but now he can’t be bothered with all the regulations. He grows his feed corn on his land and sells his chickens to friends and locals; once a year the vet comes to look around. “I haven’t had to give my chickens antibiotics for 20 years.”
A crowd of two-week-old chickens pecked at feeders in a shed, outside the blonde and brown adults pecked in the long grass. Adjacent there was a coop and a lush meadow ready for capons, castrated male chickens, to be fattened for Christmas tables. I asked Michel what was the most important factor for a good tasting chicken? The type of chicken? The feed? The environment? “Their age,” he said without hesitation. “They shouldn’t be less than four months old when they are killed.” Battery chickens, by contrast, are stuffed to be ready to slaughter at four or five weeks old; free range chickens tend to be slower growing breeds and are killed between two and four months old—but there is usually nothing to tell you the age of a chicken on a label.
Around the corner from where I live in Montmartre is one of my favourite places to eat, Le Coq Rico, a restaurant that specialises in rotisserie chicken. The chef, Antoine Westermann, once had a three Michelin star restaurant in Strasbourg, but gave up all the pomp nearly a decade ago to establish restaurants in Paris celebrating excellent ingredients. When I asked him what made the best tasting chicken he said that the breed, access to pasture and the quality of the feed, were all important, but he agreed with Michel, that age was too. “It must be at least, at least,” he emphasised, “10 weeks old.” On the menu at Le Coq Rico he offers whole roasted Poulet de Bresse and Cou-Nu, and they arrive perfectly bronzed ready to be eaten family style, accompanied by jugs of rich gravy-jus, macaroni cheese, crispy frites and a crunchy green salad dressed in a classic mustard vinaigrette.
“Why chicken?” I asked him. “Ah,” the great chef said, “I love chicken! When I was young it was what my mother cooked when the family was together.”
We discussed the differences in taste between the Poulet de Bresse and the Cou-Nu and other breeds. I said I had roasted my Poulet de Bresse and found it a bit dry and tough, Westermann described it as “elegant.” “Each breed has its own taste.” We talked by telephone because he was in New York opening a branch of Le Coq Rico in the Flatiron District. He had been delighted to find “what they call in the Etats Unis, heritage breeds. The Cou-Nu they have here is formidable. I am completely fou [mad about] what I have found in America—Brune Landaise, Plymouth Barred Rock, New Hampshire, Cornish hens, king squab.” Would he bring some back for his Parisian restaurant? He said with a shudder, “you would have to freeze them.
” Peter and I cooked all weekend: hazelnut and pear tart, rhubarb pie, homemade tagliatelle to go with his wonderful ragu. We drank the cider he had made with the apples that we had crushed on our last visit a year and a half before. It was as dry, finely fizzy and delicious as Champagne. On Sunday morning Michel appeared with two birds, a thick-boned rooster that Peter wanted for a coq au vin, and a plump Cou-Nu for me. I cooked it back in Paris. It’s dark meat was so flavourful and succulent that it needed no sauce. It’s skin crisped into thick slabs of crackling. It was the best chicken I’ve ever had.