The French take their chicken, like their freedom, very, very seriously. In fact, they appear to equate the two. The national symbol of France dating to the French revolution is the rooster, le coq gaulois. And the most acclaimed chicken in France, prized for its depth of flavor, is still, after centuries of careful breeding, the white-feathered poulet de Bresse, which sports a red coxcomb and blue legs and feet. Patriotism in France is bottom up.
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
No surprise, then, that the signature French cigarette brand, Gauloise, features a highly stylized chicken logo on its blue package. The national motto of France — liberté, égalité, fraternité – was printed on that blue package back in the day when the New Wave movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo was often seen on screen with a Gauloise hanging from his full, pouty lips. Well, does a French chicken have lips?
As staple food and cherished symbol of freedom, the humble (sometimes comedic) chicken is at the very foundation of French culture and identity. King Henri IV knew this well when, in the 16th century, he called for a chicken in every peasant’s pot.
I came to appreciate the special place (and price) of chicken in French culture this past summer while eating an awful lot of poulet rôti in Paris bistros and cafés. I plucked roasted chickens from twirling rotisseries at boucheries (butcher shops) and marchés (outdoor markets) all over town. There was a wonderful home-roasted chicken too (see description in Part 2), as one might expect from a culture that gave us the simple but delicious comfort food tradition known as cuisine de bonne femme.
But getting a handle on France’s highly evolved farm-raised poultry industry (poulet fermier) and its exhaustively (and sometimes confusingly) labeled products seems to require an advanced degree in agricultural science, if not French culture and linguistics.
Among the most pampered chickens in France, perched at the pinnacle of France’s poultry hierarchy, are birds élevé en liberté or “raised in liberty.” This term is proudly printed on the colorful labels attached to pricey packages of poultry sold under France’s prestigious Label Rouge certification program.
It’s no accident that the term adopted for France’s premium birds appears first, ahead of both “égalité” and “fraternité,” in its national motto. It took almost the entire 19th century for the revolutionary tripartite motto’s terms and sequence to become fixed. Extending the term liberté to identify and market France’s finest poultry was set in motion in the 1960s when the Label Rouge program was launched.
French chicken a little less free
The liberté-raised birds are allowed to roam outdoors without fences or time restrictions. “Totally free” is another translation for “élevé en liberté.” Accordingly, these birds command the highest prices in French shops, save for organic (bio) poultry and specialty birds like those from the region around Bourg-en-Bresse in the east of France, which are AOC protected and produced, it is claimed, under conditions even more demanding than Label Rouge.
But there is no one-term-fits-all label in France for free-range birds as in the U.S. An existential notch below élevé en liberté chickens are those élevé en plein air, or raised out-of-doors. These plein air chickens (and ducks, geese, turkeys, etc.) are required under the Label Rouge program to have ample time to range outside their coops within a fenced but generous area of no less than 21 square feet per bird. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s more lax standards require only that free-range poultry producers give their birds unspecified and unverified time outdoors with no space requirements. Home, home on the range? Well, at least once in awhile, if they are lucky.
Note that plein air is the same term used to describe the Impressionist landscape painting style of the late 19th century when French oil painting was liberated from the confines and subject matter of academic studio painting. Free-range painters.
From a French existentialist perspective
The freedom- and chicken-loving French may be all about liberty for themselves and their winged comestibles, but no matter how strict and humane the regulations under a certification program like Label Rouge (and several programs in the U.S. that emulate the standards), the chicken in France is far from free, existentially speaking. Modern chickens and all their related galliformes, whether free-range or factory-farmed, are bred, raised, slaughtered, labeled and consumed at the complete whim (and profit) of humans.
As one butcher put it to me when I asked a lot of questions about the chicken I was investing in (a lovely plein air bird raised just outside the Bresse appellation, and at a more palatable price), “If chickens were really free to range they would take off and never return.” I laughed and shot back a gallinaceous variation on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from his existentialist play, “No Exit,” “Yea, hell is other chickens.”
But after all the existential considerations of French poultry and the euphemistic terminology used by compassionate (and clever) carnivores to market it, one still has to cook the bird, and cook it well to fully appreciate its culinary virtues.
In Part 2 of this report, I present critical findings from my chicken-tasting tour of Parisian restaurants, shops, farmers markets and homes. The results may surprise you, as they did me.
Top photo: Chicken labels in a Paris shop window. Credit: L. John Harris