Emmanuelle Jary - 2011-12-13
Every year just before the holiday season, the poultry of Bresse are celebrated in great pomp during four festive days called Les Glorieuses de Bresse. Bedecked with ribbons, wrapped in linen or cotton swaddling, the fowl participate in a beauty pageant - the only one of its kind in France.
Morning has not yet dawned in Bourg-en-Bresse, where it has been snowing all night. It is December and the city, covered in a fine white powder, seems particularly festive with its shop windows twinkling gaily with little holiday lights. But right now the party is elsewhere, as dozens of poultry farmers have been working for a whole year in preparation for France’s most prestigious poultry show: Les Glorieuses de Bresse, which is held in Louhans, Bourg-en-Bresse, Pont-de-Vaux and Montrevel-en-Bresse. In the village hall, men and women tend to their fowl on large trestle tables, moving them a bit to the left, a bit to the right, deciding which poularde goes with which capon... unless this one might look better with that one. The farmers are surprisingly fussy and their displays are surprisingly beautiful. Groups of two, three or four capons on one side are matched with the same number of poulardes on the other; ideally, members of a set are virtually identical. There are also capon-poularde couples called mariage, with capons sporting baby blue ribbons and poulardes in pink. Time seems to have stopped; it feels as though nothing could be more important than what is happening right here in this hall in Bourg-en-Bresse. Farmers from the region have come to exhibit their chickens and sell them after they have competed for several different prizes, including the Grand Prix d’Honneur. The winner receives the Vase de Sèvres from the hands of the French president himself.
Bresse poultry has benefited from the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) label since 1957, and chickens from Bresse are among France’s finest fowl. There are three reasons for this: breed, environment, and farming methods.
The gauloise blanche chicken has a red comb and blue feet. It is fed maize, wheat and dairy products; one third of its sustenance comes from the worms, molluscs and lush vegetation of its natural pecking ground as it wanders through the grasses of the Bresse. It has a longer life span than most of its ilk: 4 months for chickens, 5 months for poulardes, 8 months for capons and 7 months for turkeys. These are the four kinds of poultry that may be stamped with the volaille de Bresse - Bresse poultry - AOC label.
Each of the four is raised in specific conditions, has specific physical characteristics, and therefore is destined to be cooked in a specific way. A poulet, or chicken, is a free-range male or female which after living outdoors for the better part of four months spends ten days or so in a wooden cage called an épinette to finish the fattening process. Its meat is firm and its skin cooks to a golden crisp. In our opinion poulet is at its best when simply roasted, though in Bresse it is also cooked à la crème, a cherished regional recipe that certainly merits its kudos when the chef is skilled. A poularde is a female that has never laid eggs (else she’d be a hen). She also spends three weeks in épinette to finish the fattening process. Her flesh is very creamy and moist and her skin quite thin. Capons are males that are generally castrated around Easter and raised in épinette during four weeks to finish fattening. These finest of fowl are sold during the holiday season. Georges Blanc, Vonnas’s triple-starred chef, says that to ensure that the meat retains its moistness, the thighs and legs should be removed from the body during the cooking process while they are still pink and finished after the white meat is done.
At the end of the year, when show time is nigh, Bresse farmers adopt very old, traditional methods of preparing and packing the poultry so that the meat keeps and holds up well during transport. After slaughtering, chickens, poulardes and capons are hand-plucked, washed and wrapped in a cloth made of linen, cotton or hemp. Sewn like a very tight corset around the fowl, the cloth allows fat to spread throughout the meat and any air present in the chicken to seep out, allowing optimal conservation. Only the neck and head, feathers intact, hang outside of the swaddling. The birds spend at least 48 hours in cold storage; they can be conserved in this way for three to four weeks.
For the past several years, a jury presided by Georges Blanc meets during the beauty pageant for a blind taste test of a selection of poultry dishes. As if by chance, the winners on the plate are often the same as those on display. In Bresse, outer beauty is a sure sign of inner quality.