French Bresse Chickens: A history of the French Bresse breed of chickens, from their ancient origins in old France to their arrival in North America as an intriguing dual-purpose heritage chicken.
The earliest parts of the story date back before the common era. According to French historians, three specific varieties of chickens in the Bresse region can be dated to circa 400 BC.
In those days, the Bresse valley changed hands periodically due to invading tribes, who brought with them a reliable food source - flocks of chickens. The people of the Bresse valley had access to each successive flock of chickens, adding some to their own flocks as invading tribes came and went. They kept the best chickens and ensured the best genes remained permanently in their flocks.
Chickens served as legal tender when appropriate. Farmers were known to settle debts with chickens. Poultry were also used from time to time as gifts to appease the latest invaders.
Interestingly, black, grey, and white chickens were already aggregating to the same regions in which they would be found two millennia later.
The people of Louhans toward the north of the Bresse valley were raising black chickens, the "Noire de Louhans."
Bourg-en-Bresse in the south of Bresse was the place to find Grey Bresse (silver pencilled).
The "Blanche de Bény" (white chickens of Bény), were preferred in the town of Bény, and eventually became the large all-white Bresse chickens well known today in France.
Somehow, fortuitously and with persistence over the years, decades, and then centuries, farmers were able to fix all the best utilitarian traits into the chickens of the Bresse valley: Rapid growth rate, heavy egg-laying, and the coup de grâce - the ability to produce flavorful market birds with the rare trait of fat-marbled meat
All of these traits became synonymous with the chickens of Bresse.
The flocks of French Bresse chickens dotting the valley's rural pastures could be relied upon to produce chickens all manifesting the above dual-purpose traits.
In 1591, the Marquis of Treffort and his men drove away from Bresse an invading army from Savoy. To show their gratitude, the inhabitants of Bourg-en-Bresse brought to the Marquis their best -- twenty-four fatted Bresse chickens.
This note is found in the annals of the town of Bourg-en-Bresse, and is considered the first mention of a specific breed of French Bresse chickens.
By the year 1600 AD, the moist flavor of Bresse poultry had caught the attention of kings. King Henri-Quatre (IV) of France, rumor has it, tried to figure out how he could take lengthy stays in Bresse because he loved the richness of Bresse chicken.
Historians acknowledge that the details around this story are uncertain. However King Henri did vow to ensure that the French people would always be able to puisse mettre la poule au pot ("put a hen in the pot").
By the early 1800s, the Bresse chicken had gained the well-deserved attention of the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who penned his famous book, The Physiology of Taste in 1825. (It is still in print!)
In it, he poetically described the Bresse chicken as the “queen of poultry,” and the “poultry of kings.” Since he lived nearby, it is an easy guess that he dined like a king more than once on entrees of French Bresse chicken.
This could also be why he ranked the Bresse chicken in the highest tier for taste and quality.
Ultimately, it was the coming of the European railroad system that spread the the fame of Bresse poultry throughout Europe.
Chefs in every European capital were soon serving Chapon Bresse au Champignon to the rich and to royalty, no doubt becoming celebrities in the gourmet world.
The breed went through a big hiccup in the late 1890s, as breed numbers plummeted to nearly nothing.
So impressive and valuable was the breed that people had been mixing Bresse with multiple other breeds to improve those other breeds, with the result that there were fewer and fewer pure Bresse chickens available for continuing the pure Bresse breed itself.
Right around 1900, people awakened to the horrible possibility of losing the Bresse breed altogether. Because there were still a few individuals that had kept pure Bresse flocks, an intensive breeding program ensued. An official new Standard of Perfection was written in 1904. Breeders now had a target toward which to selectively breed.
Utilizing the French Bresse chickens that were available, along with other local white birds, they were able to reestablish flocks of French Bresse chickens that manifested the dual-purpose Bresse traits renowned throughout the Bresse region.
On December 22, 1936, the fight began to control the feeding and the breeding of the French Bresse chicken in order to protect it from further loss. The fact that French wines, champagne and cheeses had obtained such Registered Designations of Origin helped. Legal battles ensued against breeders outside the Bresse region.
It was not until August 1, 1957, that the French government finally granted the breed name, Bresse, legal status, issuing the coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) decree, or in English, "registered designation of origin." It is the only living animal that has such protection.
Legally, this means: If the chicken hasn’t been born and raised in the Bresse Valley in France, fed foodstuffs grown in Bresse, AND match the Standard of Perfection for the breed, the chicken cannot be called a Bresse chicken.
Therefore in France, any Bresse chickens NOT raised in the Bresse Valley are instead called Bresse Gauloise, meaning “Bresse chickens from France but NOT originating from the Bresse region.” Bresse Gauloise birds may have identical genetics, but not being raised on the grass and soil of Bresse disqualifies them from being sold as Bresse chickens.
Picky picky, you say?? It appears to me that the legal protections are meant to prevent the chance of ever losing what the French now view as a national treasure. Not to mention the fact that French Bresse farmers and breeders have done more than 2,000 years of heavy lifting for the rest of us.
Rapid Growth: French Bresse chickens grow like weeds until they reach their genetic potential, noticeably outgrowing other breeds of the same age raised under identical conditions.
Excellent Foragers: The drive to forage has been encouraged in Bresse. They are fed a low-protein feed in order that they would get fully one-third of their diet from foraging. Grasses, weeds, seeds, and excellent nutrition from bugs and worms are all an important part of their diet. This is great for the chickens, great on the environment, and reduces the strain on the feed bill.
Early Laying of Many Eggs per Year: It is not unusual for hens to begin laying eggs by week 17. They can be expected to lay up to 250 eggs a year, if not more.
World Class Meat Quality: They taste uhmazing! In my opinion they are more juicy and flavorful than a typical Cornish cross fryer (which I have raised as well, and which are certainly delicious).
They often remain relatively tender beyond the usual market age of most other backyard chicken breeds (which I have also raised for years).
For those reasons, they command high prices both in the market place and in fancy French restaurants, where highly trained chefs create meals that entice the eyes, seduce the senses, and satisfy the souls of the most discerning gourmet.
If you’re hearing about the American Bresse chicken breed for the very first time, this could be why.
Greenfire Farms, a rare breed hatchery, made three imports of French Bresse chickens into the United States, the first importation occurring in 2011. With those imports, the United States and Canada gained a wonderful heritage chicken. But, out of respect for French legal protections regarding the name "Bresse," the breed name in North America needed to be altered somewhat. It is currently called American Bresse.
I have also heard them called Ambresse colloquially. That actually makes sense, as the term is a contraction of American and Bresse.
American Bresse can be found in 4 varieties. White is the most common in the United States, but black, blue, and grey (silver pencilled) can also be found, along with splash variations. The white variety is the largest of the American Bresse varieties.
American Bresse Chickens are not yet accepted into the American Poultry Association...