One of the best reasons to live in the Lake Geneva region is that it’s within striking distance of Burgundy. If we manage to slip out of the office by 17h on a Friday evening, we can be happily ensconced two hours later in a cozy bistro in Beaune, sipping our kir, debating what to order.
The nice buzz created by a kir or two will help cushion the shock that many visitors to Burgundy receive when they order one of the region’s best known dishes –poulet de Bresse. To be blunt: these birds ain’t cheap.
We, however, are now native enough to know that the victuals on offer in Burgundy are far from ordinary beasts. The prized poulet de Bresse has a long and honoured presence in French culinary history, and no trip to Burgundy would be complete without indulging in France’s most delectable poultry.
Poulet de Bresse first appeared in French history books in 1591 when the Burgundians proffered two dozen of their plumpest choice chickens to the Marquis of Treffort to thank him for repelling invading Savoyard troops. Today, Bresse poultry is, of course, big business and boasts an AOC awarded in 1957.
There are countless recipes for cooking Bresse chicken but I thought it best to check with an expert, the Bresse poultry salesman in the Beaune outdoor market. He was thrilled to share his expert views on the matter and spent the next half-hour providing minute detail about all the atrocities that can be committed against Bresse chickens by inexperienced cooks. As he sliced off the distinctive blue-clawed feet, and plucked at the remaining white feathers on the 2 kilogram specimen I selected, he cited numerous crimes: butter under the skin, olive oil drizzled on top, onion and herbs stuffed in the cavity, using the drippings from the roast pan mixed with herbs and cream to make sauce. In short, everything I had ever done while preparing roast chicken for the past 30 years!
Here’s the secret: place the chicken in a pan of water and put it into an ice-cold oven. Only once the poorly adorned chicken (minus my usual garlic gloves, carrots, and onions) is firmly ensconced do you put on the oven’s thermostat to a gentle 180°C and let the bird roast tranquilly for 30 minutes for every 500g My initial scepticism evaporated as I devoured the moist, fragrant chicken that tastes amazingly like the creator of poultry meant it to taste.
As an accompaniment, bring on mashed potatoes featuring another well-loved Burgundy product: Dijon mustard. A heaving spoonful into a bowl of fluffy spuds and voilà… Burgundy bites! Rather than smothering the mashed potatoes in thick creamy gravy, try serving them with the juices from the chicken. The French call this – au jus – and this light sauce accentuates the original flavour of the roast and potatoes rather than overpowering them.
A taste of Burgundy
Roast poulet de Bresse
1 large poulet de Bresse (around 1.5 kilos and €35!)
Ask the butcher to give you the giblets (heart, gizzard, neck) so you can boil them with onions and some celery and carrots to make a flavoursome broth for gravy. Place the chicken in a glass or ceramic dish and partly fill with water. The drippings from the chicken will fall into the water, creating a broth. Place the chicken into a cold oven, then set the temperature to 180°C for 30 minutes per 500 g. Baste the chicken every twenty minutes. The skin will become crispy and the meat will remain tender and aromatic.
When the chicken is ready, add the drained boiled broth (throw away the innards and vegetables) to the juices in the bottom of the chicken dish. Melt two tablespoons of butter then add a heaped tablespoon of white flour and stir until bubbly. Slowly add the broth until thick, season with salt and pepper.
Mashed potatoes with Dijon mustard
Boil 2 kilos of starchy potatoes with their skins left on. Be sure to add salt to the water. When the potatoes are soft (about 20 minutes), peel them and mash by hand. Using a blender makes the potatoes too soft – we like ours with lumps! In the meantime, heat a cup of milk, half a cup of crème fraîche, and 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Blend into the mashed potatoes, then add a tablespoon of butter and serve when it is fully melted.