French Chicken, Part 1: Does Labeling Equal Liberty?

by:

in: World

French Chicken Label Rouge

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.

FRENCH CHICKEN


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.

Sticker shock

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.

France Existential Chicken Chart by L. John Harris

Any resemblance of this chart to any other French poultry labeling system is purely coincidental. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

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


Zester Daily contributing writer and illustrator L. John Harris has lived and worked in and around Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto since the 1960s. Since the sale of his cookbook publishing company, Aris Books, in 1990, Harris has worked as a journalist, cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of "The Book of Garlic" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975) and the graphic memoir "Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History" (El Leon Literary Arts, 2010). A vintage guitar collector, Harris launched the nonprofit Harris Guitar Foundation in 2013 in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

 

recommend

Email

PRINT

Comments

Julie in Provence
on: 11/13/12
Great story...and love the pyramid! The longer I live here in France, the more I realize I don't know. I mean, you think you know chicken...and then this! Bravo on all your great research! By the way, wasn't there a joke once about ''Why did the existential cross the road?'' I believe there was but I've lost the punchline. Anyone? Julie at ProvencePost.com
L. John Harris
on: 11/13/12
Thanks Julie for the comment and for sharing the article on your wonderful Provence Post site. I'm still hoping to hook up with you one of these summers, maybe over a poulet aux quarante gousse d'ail. French Chicken, Part 2 is coming soon, and I'll send a link. A bientot. John
Richard in Berkeley
on: 11/14/12
Wasn't that a lyric by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? Poulet, poulet. Sorry, couldn't resist. I'll be interested in your recipes and commentary in part two.
L. John Harris
on: 11/15/12
Thanks for your comment Richard. I'm not sure how the Pharaohs prepared their chicken-- probably in pyramid-shapped fire pits, but the Parisians love their roast chicken on spits and in ovens. Problem is that it takes time and care to prepare and serve a good roast chicken, and most bistros in Paris these days come up short on both accounts. There are some notable exceptions, as Part 2 will reveal.
Agnès Laszczyk
on: 4/24/14
I have been director of the Label Rouge poultry producers federation in Paris for 26 years and I just now discover your paper on chicken Label Rouge. Congratulations for your good report ! I really love your pyramid... Just a precision on your comment “If chickens were really free to range they would take off and never return.” : That is true for guinea fowls because they are very wild and would go away (then they are not raised in total freedom) but chickens always come back into the poultryhouse every night for protection against foxes and other wild predators.That why they can be raised in total freedom in forest. Agnès (independant consultant)
L. John Harris
on: 4/24/14
Thank you Agnes for your comment. Delighted (and amazed) that the article found its way to you and that it was not too deficient in terms of the technical details. I appreciate your corrections. As you know Label Rouge is a standard we emulate in the U.S.--and, from what I can tell, attempt to exceed. We take our poultry very seriously here! I'm also pleased that my Existential Poultry Pyramid was amusing to you. I think it should be published in France. Any suggestions? Merci beaucoup. L. John Harris

Add a comment