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Bresse Is Best


President Awards Prize To Chicken! Surely this could only take place in France where there is one provincial town where such a spectacle could be expected: Bourg en Bresse.

Famous the world over for its poultry, the French President does in fact attend the annual chicken competition, awarding the farmer who has reared the best chook. Moreover, a beauty parade is held to determine the most attractive chicken, capon and poularde – a female chicken who has not begun to lay eggs. There I was thinking that all hens laid eggs, but what do I know?

16 years ago, my husband and I drove through Bresse during a road trip of France. Those were the days when the lunch budget stretched to a baguette and possibly a slice of ham or cheese. Years later, with two extra mouths to feed, we decided that the time had come to indulge and to introduce our brood to the best chicken dinner ever, le poulet de Bresse. This chicken is the Rolls Royce of  poultry, as expensive as it is prized. You can’t just aspire to be a Bresse chicken just because you move into the right neighbourhood and cluck in the local dialect. No, this is the ancien regime, where breeding and birth right are paramount. The Bresse breed is protected by an AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlee) which determines that only chickens conforming to three criteria can wear the metal tag, proof of its authenticity.

 

The chicken must be the right breed, have been fed the right food and live in the right environment – all specified of course. There is no attempt at social mobility and equal opportunity in this world.

I am quite aware that too much anticipation often results in anti-climax, but it was hard to hide my excitement as the appointed day drew near. Nor did the price tag of a portion of Bresse chicken dampen my enthusiasm, despite calculating the number of organic chickens I could buy for the price of four portions of Bresse.

You only live once, I reasoned. Just days before my husband had turned 50 and we are focussed on getting on with experiences we want to enjoy while time is on our side. A chicken dinner may seem an odd place to start but, if you value food entertainment, it is just the ticket. Being a family devoted to a weekly roast chicken dinner, I thought that this meal would provide a store of memories that would linger long after it was digested.

We arrived in Bresse-en-Bourg at noon, reservations having been made months earlier, unnecessarily at it turned out as the town looked deserted on a Sunday.

No doubt the locals were eating at home, tucking into sumptuous lunches which explained why many of the well-reviewed restaurants were shut for the day. We located our small eatery and perused Le Bressan’s menu briefly as we all knew what we had come to eat. The Bresse chicken is traditionally served in a cream and morel sauce. Some discussion ensued as to who was to have it in its original incarnation and who would sacrifice the sauce for the greater good – so that we could all taste the chicken plain roasted. Such meaty matters decided upon, we sat back in anticipation.

 

My first impression was of the texture – somehow lighter and leaner than the organic chickens we usually eat. The meat was more chewy, in a good way. The taste was slightly more gamey than that of its plebeian relations. The sauce was unctuous and rich beyond compare, perhaps the richest I have ever eaten. I have to confess that I simply could not finish it. As for the dauphinoise potatoes that accompanied the meal, well once one is eating so much cream, why not go the whole hog?

We discussed the merits of our lunch and concluded that while it was indeed a very fine meal, a chicken is at the end of the day just a chicken. It does not transform into lobster just because it has blue feet, a metal tag and costs a bomb. It does not become a luxury food, just a very rich one.

As we drove out of town we noticed a McDonalds at the side of the road. Somehow this seemed so wrong in a place like this. Yet it reflects so much about the inequalities inherent in our food culture. Those who dine on Bresse chicken are as exclusive a breed as the fowls we feed on. Most of the inhabitants of Bresse cannot afford to eat the chickens that make their town such a mecca for foodies.  For most people food is fuel not entertainment. Yet I like to think that my privileged children are learning that a chicken meal is not a Chicken Deal, that some chickens are worth crossing the country ‘s roads for – at least once in a lifetime.