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.
The Bresse Valley is a narrow swath of green fields and woodlands very typical of Europe. It sits at the foot of the Jura Mountains to the east, a pocket of valley floor measuring roughly 60 miles by 25 miles. That's it.
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 via barter or purchase 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 - tender, flavorful meat with the rare trait of fat-marbling.
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 1890s.
If Bresse chickens are wonderful, then BIG Bresse chickens might be even better, and especially more profitable. At least, that was the reasoning, apparently. During the last 25 years of the 1800's, breeders attempted to add size to the Bresse breed by crossing the gray Bresse de Bourg with large asiatic breeds recently brought to France. Those crosses were then followed up with outcrosses to the Campine breed in order to clean up the color.
The larger gray offspring were crossed into the white Bresse de Beny. It took only 25 years of cross-breeding to nearly destroy the gray and white varieties of the French Bresse chicken. Breed numbers plummeted to nearly nothing.
Fortunately, the black French Bresse chicken was mostly spared from the cross-breeding.
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. A Standard of Perfection for each of the three varieties was written in 1904 by members of a newly established Bresse Club. Breeders now had a clear 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.
Nine years later in 1913, all varieties of Bresse chickens were once again represented at the Paris Agricultural Show. International visitors to the show were impressed enough with the breed that exports of Bresse were made to the UK, Canada, USA, and to Brazil.
The results of these early imports are lost to time. There is no clear evidence that the Blue Foot Chickens of Canada are at all related to these early exports of French Bresse chickens.
A year later in 1914, the Bresse Standards were approved.
The blue variety came along in 1923.
In 1925, interestingly, the majority of Bresse at the Paris poultry exhibition were black Bresse.
On December 22, 1936, the fight began to control the feeding and the breeding of the French Bresse chicken in order to ensure its survival and protect from further fiascos. The fact that French wines, cheeses, and champagne 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.
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.
This is no small deal, as approximately 1.5 million chicks are currently hatched commercially every year in the Bresse Valley alone.
Even 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 the region of Bresse disqualifies them from being sold as Bresse chickens.
In the UK, Bresse are called La Gauloise, and in the USA and Canada they are currently called American Bresse chickens.
There are very compelling reasons why French breeders would be interested in protecting the French Bresse chicken. Consider all the following traits wrapped up in a single breed!
French Bresse Chickens were imported into the United States for the first time in 2011. If you had never heard about the American Bresse chicken breed, 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 and the last one in 2017. 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.
American Bresse can be found in 4 varieties in the United States. White is the most common and the largest in size, but black, blue, and splash can also be found. I understand that gray (silver pencilled) birds are also in North America, however I have not seen any yet.
American Bresse Chickens are not yet accepted into the American Poultry Association...