Dancing wild radish flowers are often the only sign that our white Bresse hen Fifi and her adolescent chicks are making the rounds through the jungle. All 16 chicks that Fifi “hatched” (we snuck in 8 brand new hatchlings from the incubator) have made it to 11 weeks of age. Fifi should have abandoned her chicks more than a month ago. Why can’t she cut those apron feathers?. The usual time that hens stay with chicks is 4-6 weeks, we have seen in observing dozens of broods here. Her babies, some of which are actually hers, but more of which come from our large meat bird lines, are almost the same size as mom. Motherhood qualities in chickens varies as much in chickens as it does in humans. Some will give their lives for their chicks. And we once had a cochin mother run away after two days, going back to sex with the rooster, dust baths and flapping about and acting extra free.
I saw Fifi make a few halfhearted efforts to shake her mature brood several weeks ago (when the pictures in the grass were taken). She flew to the top of a fence they couldn’t get up on. But when she got down, the brood rushed to greet her enthusiastically. She really melted. This is the time most mothers will peck and chase away her brood. The chicks always try to make mom change her mind, peeping, begging and following her at a distance. But Fifi couldn’t seem to bring herself to peck her babies. She went back up in the high roosts. Most of them sat next to her. Many mothers chase the babies away. Fifi let them be.
Then, she seemed to give up. They all sleep together in a big pile again. She gave up the roost and came back to the floor. She doesn’t try to run away. Every morning, Fifi still takes the chicks through the three feet deep lilies, blackberries, radish and cattails that surround our pond. The happy soprano staccato sound chickens make for their babies and the answering happy peeps when they find an anthill, a pill bug colony or snails can be heard coming from the brush. The weed tops wiggle, wave then dance. No other chicken has ever ventured into this jungle.
When they hear me– the farmer–they come running out of the weeds, begging for food. They have begun to look more like an approaching street gang than a mother with cute chickens. It doesn’t matter whether I have food out or not, they surround me. Fifi stands directly in front of me, looking up, making eye contact.
Bresse may be the world’s most famous chicken, but not for their charming behavior.
In France, where Fifi originated, chickens are like fine wines. There are Appellations where the tastiest gourmet chickens come from. The Bresse is rated by most sources as the finest tasting chicken on earth. True poulet de Bresse may only be raised in the region of Bresse, and only from the local breed of chickens, Bresse gauloise. There are three counties in France where the Bresse can be raised. It cannot be exported. There are three chicken appelations: RHONE-ALPES, BURGUNDY and FRANCHE-COMTÉ.
The chicken was rarely bred outside of France, if ever, until Canadian chicken farmers and some in the American South imported some.
So Fifi is not a “Real” Bresse She is what is now called an American Bresse, bred by the prestigious Greenfire farms. http://greenfirefarms.com/chicken/american-bresse/
“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,” Greenfire’s website tells us. Each chick costs $29 at Greenfire.
Fifi fits every physical criteria of Bresse. The most important of these are her blue feet. Bresse chickens are normally sold and often served with head and feet attached so that customers know they are not getting a cross breed. Bresse is usually twice as expensive as American lobster or other special gourmet items on the menu. At the grocery store, they sell for $50-$70 American dollars each
Here is the list of what NOW makes a Bresse a Bresse. Completely white feathers, including the hackles; fine blue feet, completely smooth; red crest, single, with large denticulations, red wattles, white or red-speckled ear-flaps; white skin and flesh. Fifi fits all these. The one requirement she does not meet is a leg tag that identifies the French farmer that raised her. It is called the the A.O.C. label from the Volaille de Bresse Interprofessional Committee. There are hundreds of articles about Bresse chickens online. Food critics often try them and almost always are surprised at just how good they are. Many have investigated the secrets of the Bresse, finding the French farmers mum.
I looked through my library of old American chicken books and found some really interesting stuff. One fact is that Bresse were NOT white 130 years ago. This sounds like heresy to the Bresse people I know. Most of the books expressed irritation or righteous indignation at the fact the French did not want to bring their birds to International Chicken shows.
George B. Fiske, in his 1919 book, “Poultry Feeding and Fattening”found the legendary Gallic farmers more accommodating than modern investigative reporters, even to a Yank. They told George one of their tricks was how they treated the Bresse after slaughter.
“Small Bresse poultry keepers and great fatteners alike adopt this method. Every fowl, no matter how small its price, is prepared in the following way: For this purpose two cloths are used, the first a piece of fine linen, and the second an oblong piece of coarse linen or canvas. The shape of the fine linen does not matter so much but the coarse linen requires to be of a certain make. So soon as the fowl is killed it is plucked, and whilst warm, wrapped, first in the fine linen, and then in the coarser material; the special coarse linen is drawn very tightly, either by tapes or cords passed through holes provided for the purpose, or is sewed up with fine strings. These cloths envelop it completely. It is stitched first from the stern up to the hocks, and then along the body to the neck, the legs being laid on either side of the breast and encased with the cloth. The fowls are dipped in cold water and allowed to remain in this position from twenty-four to thirty’-six hours. When taken out they have a sugar-loaf shape, the head being at the apex and the stern at the base. The effect of this system is to smooth the skin and give it a very pleasing appearance. “
The book contains a drawing the author made. Bresse gained most of its current form and status following World War II. Buttermilk as food is mentioned in most all of the modern foodie articles. Another fact the writers have found is that the chickens free range, at least for the first couple of months of their lives.
George’s book also recorded secrets in the food and reported that the Bresse region and its exclusivity and desirability had already been established. French histories say the Bresse was established by the 15th century.
“The chicken food in France is always prepared from finely ground meal, hard corn never being in the mix. Buckwheat meal, maize meal and barley meal are used. With one or other of these is used skim milk, but in several districts of France the whey of curdled milk is preferred, and in the La Bresse country a special variety of the latter is thought to give better perfection in fattening and improve the quality of the flesh. Some of the fatteners are content to mix hot water with the meal, but all acknowledge that milk or whey is better. In some cases, boiled potatoes are mixed with the food. In some parts of Prance, fat is mixed with the food.”
Edward Brown in his 1893 Book; “Pleasurable Poultry Keeping” rates the Bresse as the world’s tastiest chicken. He compares it to the Dorking, which was then, and is today considered the tastiest English-American bird. Although the bird came in two colors then and neither was white, the review sounds very much like the modern reviews on foodie blogs.
“The La Bresse is the best of all the French fowls for table purposes. For flavor of meat and tenderness we have never met its equal. It was decidedly better than the Dorking which we had on the table at the same time. Some of this might be due to feeding, for the French fowl has been fed according to the Gallic method, whilst the English fowl has been prepared in the way which is usually the case for our home market. The flesh of the Bressee really melted in the mouth, and it was a rare treat. This breed is divided into two varieties, namely, the grey and the black. The former, which has really a pencilled marking, is chiefly bred in the department of the Bourg, and the latter, black in plumage, in the Arrondisement of Louhans. Hens of both these varieties are good layers, and very rarely sit.”
(Fifi would demur about not having babies)
Because I don’t read French, these are the earliest accounts I have of the Bresse.
The Wikipedia reports The lawyer, politician, epicure and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826), who was born at Belley in the Ain, is supposed to have described the Bresse as “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings”.
Read the Wall Street Journal’s Food Section take on the Bresse in their December 2014 piece, the Year of the Chicken
Seattle Weekly also has a fun piece on the Bresse that includes a picture of the blue feet.
I went out this morning to take photos of blue feet on Fifi. She ran up and then I couldn’t find her. I went into the back and found her Bresse sister Galliee. Don’t tell Fifi but she was taking a HALF HOUR dust bath. She found this pile of ashes between the way back pile of stuff
I had to prod her out of the dust bath. Then I chased her around taking pictures of her feet. Chickens are monkey curious and she was more than mildly irritated, especially since I didn’t bring food, which is what I am for. She dodged and seemed to hide her feet. I felt like a weirdo trying to take pictures of stilettos at the mall!
Then I heard the sounds of one of Fifi’s babies in distress. it was caught inside the have a heart raccoon trap. Unhurt but MAD! It screeched and yelled when I took it out and out of the forest comes FIFI. Not friendly as usual, but as you can see all bristled out and lecturing me.
Then she called all her large babies to run away from the featherless ape creature, who was not being a good feeder and was obviously torturing the teenagers. Run! Run! She clucked
It wasn’t long before she was back to begging. I should have a contest on when this mom will finally leave her grown up babies? Ever?
The French are right. The blue feet of the Bresse are lost in the crossbreeding. This is Fifi’s girl. She looks like mom. Her legs are blue but not her feet.
Fifi left her chicks three days ago. They are nearly full grown. I laughed when I saw them making the big circle through the whole property without Fifi. Then, tonite, one got under the house instead of in it. Its something young chickens do all the time. Fifi came OUT of the house and around the back to where the chicken was stuck. She called it out. and they went into the house together. Its way above and beyond the call of duty for a mother hen. Fifi has stopped begging me for food every morning. She would walk up, stop and tilt her head flat to see me way up here and cluck. I believe the Bresse are remarkable Frenchies.