Bresse chickens have a long and colorful history that underlies their unique claim in the poultry realm: They are reputed to be the best-tasting chickens in the world. From that simple but powerful claim flows a fascinating story that his rich in tradition, intrigue, and nationalistic pride. Bresse stand at the pinnacle where food and fowl intersect.
About 500 years ago, Bresse (rhymes with “bless”) emerged as a distinct chicken breed in the former province of Bresse in eastern France. Somewhere between the Rhone River and the French Alps sits a 60-mile by 25-mile swath of fields and woodlands. Here the breed was formed from a now-forgotten mix of local fowl. Through a combination of luck and selective breeding, small flocks of poulet de Bresse that dotted the French countryside soon earned the reputation of having a unique and exquisite flavor.
There are four varieties of Bresse: white, black, blue, and gray. The white variety is the best known and is used almost exclusively for meat production. The white Bresse is instantly recognized in France with its large red comb, bright white feathers, and steel-blue legs. (As newly hatched chicks their legs are yellow.) White Bresse produce a medium-sized cream-colored egg. By contrast, the black Bresse is less meaty but known for producing a disproportionately large bright white egg. (Despite their leaner carcass, one European chef told us he prefers the black Bresse as a meat bird.) Greenfire Farms has imported from Europe both the white, black, and blue Bresse varieties, and our birds were obtained from several distinct flocks.
In order for a chicken to taste like a Bresse chicken it must, perhaps inconveniently, be an authentic Bresse chicken that can directly trace its genetic lineage to the flocks of eastern France. Bresse belong to a genetically distinct chicken breed that metabolize feed in a certain way, distribute certain types of muscle across their frames in a certain pattern and at certain rates, and produce meat with a unique and distinct flavor. Bresse are known to have unusually light bones and thin skin. These many physical differences flow from the singular genetics of Bresse. More than a half-millennium of breed selection has produced a Bresse that cannot be replicated by simply crossing other unrelated breeds of chickens to create a Bresse facsimile.
The production methods for Bresse are as unique as the genetics of the birds themselves. Bresse are raised by small farmers in France according to an exacting protocol. When old enough to free range, the young birds are placed on pasture to forage. Male birds are caponized (castrated) to ensure their meat remains tender. Each bird is afforded at least ten square meters of pasture, and the size of a flock is limited to no more than five hundred birds. Pastures are allowed to lay fallow after two successive flocks of Bresse have foraged in the grass.
At night Bresse are housed in small wooden coops to keep them safe from predators. During this period when they actively free-range Bresse are given a low-protein whole-grain supplement to encourage them to find insects to boost their protein intake. At four months for hens and at eight months for capons, the birds are placed in wooden cages in a shaded barn where they are fed a diet of grains and milk. Fresh from building lean muscle in the fields, in the barn the birds gorge on the milk and grain concoction; fat infiltrates the muscle and marbles the meat. After a few weeks of fattening they are ready for slaughter.
After the Bresse are slaughtered the carcasses are usually plucked clean but the feathers are left undisturbed on the head and neck. The characteristic steel-blue legs are also almost always left intact. This provides consumers visual confirmation that they are buying authentic Bresse. The birds are also banded to identify their gender and labeled with the name of the farmer who raised them and the identity of the processing plant.
Importantly, the newly processed Bresse carcasses are air chilled, not water chilled. Air chilling serves the purpose of cooling and preserving the carcass without allowing water to dilute the dense flavor of the meat or change its texture. Bresse flesh has a rich pink glow accented with bright yellow fat.
And for centuries of hard work and refined breeding, what does the consumer experience when eating Bresse? If food critics are to be believed, it is as close to a spiritual experience that eating chicken can provide.
As early as 1825, the prototypical epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described Bresse as “the queen of chickens, and the chicken of kings.” Bresse have been said to possess “the tastiest, the firmest and most succulent flesh of any chicken anywhere.” And the United Kingdom’s venerable newspaper, The Guardian, has noted:
There are champagnes, they like to say round the small town of Bourg-en-Bresse in south-east of France, and there is Dom Perignon. There are cars, and there is the Rolls-Royce. And there are chickens, and there is the poulet de Bresse. They have been raising this prince among poultry here since Roman times, and in the era of the dirt cheap, anemic battery hen from you’re really not quite sure where, they are not about to let you forget it.
And so, because of its legendary meat quality, Bresse command a huge premium compared to conventional commercial poultry and are the basis of a thriving agricultural industry in France. There is a single center in France that is in charge of producing the finest Bresse breeding stock. These breeders are distributed to three hatcheries that use them to produce more than 1.5 million Bresse chicks each year. The Bresse chicks are sold to about 400 small farmers. The birds are raised according to the exacting Bresse production protocol and processed by a small number of butchering facilities.
About 95% of the 1.5 million processed Bresse chickens are sold within the borders of France. The small remainder is sold in other European countries. None are exported to the United States. Retail prices vary depending on the venue, geography, and time of year. Bresse are in great demand in Paris around Christmastime, for example. A single large capon in a Parisian butcher shop can command the equivalent of almost $200 during the holiday season.
The French argue that for a Bresse to be called a Bresse it must have been raised in France. (For this reason at Greenfire Farms we make a clear distinction from French-hatched birds by referring to our chickens as American Bresse.) We can, however, approximate the traditional methods of raising Bresse in this country by providing them access to pasture and finishing them on organic grains and dairy products. So, our American Bresse are being raised on pasture at Greenfire Farms, and we’ll keep you updated as we grow out our birds. In fact, all of the white American Bresse that we sell come from parents that live in a complete free-range environment throughout the year. You will be amazed at the free-range capabilities of this remarkable breed.