Breed Profile: Bresse Chicken

Best Meat Chickens in Their Unique Regional Environment

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Breed Profile: Bresse Chicken

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Breed: Bresse chicken is a legally protected name of fowl raised within a defined area of 60 by 25 miles (100 by 40 km) in France. Breeders achieve its label of origin by following defined feeding and management practices. It is the combination of the breed, feeding method, and free-range foraging on local terrain that gives this bird its famous gourmet status. When raised outside this area, the breed is called La Gauloise or Bresse-Gauloise. In some countries, it is also given a national designation, such as the American Bresse chicken.

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Origin: Known as a farmyard bird in the eastern French province of Bresse between the river Rhone and the Jura mountains for at least 400 years.

Bresse chickens are France’s best tasting meat chickens. Much of their flavor is due to the unique terrain over which the pullets free-range and forage, as well as the locally-grown feed supplements.

bresse-pullets-free-ranging
Bresse chicken pullets at pasture: credit Chabe01/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

History: The first record of the breed is from 1591, when the villagers of Bourg gifted 24 fat roosters to the Marquis of Treffort. Bresse regions were joined to France in 1601 and Henri IV encouraged his people to cook chicken every Sunday. For hundreds of years, the Bresse chicken was considered the best tasting chicken breed in France. Famous gastronome and epicure Brillat-Savarin enthused about the meat of this bird in his book Physiology of Taste in 1825. He encouraged cooks to consider a good Bresse chicken as a painter views their canvas. This led to a highly aesthetic approach to butchery. Meat poultry shows commenced the following year to encourage the development of the best chickens for meat through selective breeding.

map-bresse-production-region
Bresse chicken production map: credit Eric Gaba/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

This highly prized product fetched premium prices. Some dishonest traders took advantage by selling any bird with a red comb, white skin, and blue legs — the only traits by which Bresse chickens could be identified at that point. Varieties began to emerge, defined by the towns where they were developed. The gray, Bresse de Bourg, appears to be the first color defined, from 1875 at the earliest, as a bird with silver-penciled markings. Breeders attempted to increase the size of the gray through crossbreeding, first with the newly arrived Asiatic breeds. As coloring suffered, further crossings with Campine were made. The white Bresse de Bény was developed from the gray. The black variety, Bresse de Louhans, escaped this dilution and remained a purer, smaller breed. Crossbreeding led the breed near to extinction around 1900, but dedicated enthusiasts strove for its recovery. The Bresse Club was founded in 1904 to define and protect the standard of the three varieties.

gray-and-white-standard
Gray variety (foreground) and white (behind) from L’Acclimatation breeders journal, 1906.
gray-bresse-gauloise-chickens
Gray Bresse-Gauloise chickens by Alain Pradine, France.

At the Paris Agricultural Show in 1913, all three varieties were noticed by overseas visitors, resulting in exports to the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Britain. In 1914 standards were agreed. A blue variety was developed in 1923. By 1925, the black was most numerous at the poultry exhibition in Paris.

Legal protection of the Bresse name to a limited territory was ruled in 1936, the AOP (Appellation d’origine protégée) geographical indication being applied to the white variety from 1957. Although the white Bresse was the only one to gain commercial success, early writers (Olivier de Serres 1600, Comte de Buffon 1739, Charles Voitellier 1918) preferred the black variety, despite the smaller size and finer bone structure. They wrote praise for qualities such as superior meat and eggs, hiding more easily from chicken predators, and being more “joyful and robust” than the white.

black-bresse-variety
Black Bresse de Louhans by Jean Bungartz, 1885.

Conservation Status: Although white Bresse-Gauloise are commercial birds producing around 1.5 million chicks per year, the gray, black, and blue variants are rare.

Description: Medium-sized, long body with fine skeleton and dual-purpose conformation. Gray legs, dark eyes, and white ears.

Varieties: White, black, gray (silver-penciled), and blue.

Skin: The thin white skin and white fat is a prized feature in France.

Comb: Large, red, single; drooping in hen.

white-bresse-chickens
White Bresse rooster and hen: credit Chabe01/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Popular Use: Originally dual-purpose farmyard birds, now mainly raised as premium meat birds, although remaining good layers.

Egg Color: White.

Egg Size: 2 oz. (60 g); black variety known for 2.5 oz. (70 g) eggs.

Productivity: Fast-growing and maturing, ready to lay or for the table from four months old.

Weight: Rooster 5.5–6.6 lb. (2.5–3 kg); hen 4.4–5.5 lb. (2–2.5 kg).

Temperament: Calm, active forager.

bresse-chicken-pullet

Adaptability: The Bresse tradition for raising meat chickens at pasture has led to birds who actively roam and are excellent foragers on grass and insects. Their diet is supplemented with corn and dairy. The birds thrive at range in the damp climate on the clay soil of the Bresse region, where they explore grass meadows and hedgerows from dawn to dusk. Hens rarely brood, but those that do make good mothers. Chicks are hardy, fledging quickly.

Quotes: “The queen of poultry, the poultry of kings.” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, gastronome, and epicure, France, 1825.

“… it is not an ordinary broiler. Their development has some special features; they grow up fast, but remain normal-looking chickens, without becoming so massive that they cannot stand up straight after the age of three months, like in the case of ordinary broilers.” Raymond Aldolphy, Bresse breeder, France.

“They are very chatty hens and very curious. They tend to come up to you to see what goodies you might have to feed them. So my [Bresse-Gauloise] are now free-ranging and providing me with tons of eggs.” Verna Schickedanz, Chicken Danz Farm, Waverly, KS.

american-bresse-rooster
American Bresse rooster by Verna Schickedanz, Chicken Danz Farm, KS.

Sources: Bresse-Gauloise club de France.

de Jong, D. 2007. Bresse-Gauloise: More than 400 years old, and still fresh and lively. Aviculture-Europe.

Frossard-Urbano, S. 1991. La volaille de Bresse : un objet parfait. Terrain.

Originally published in the February/March 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Bresse-Gauloise pullets

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