Every trip to France always becomes a holy pilgrimage looking for the perfect croissant and pain au chocolat to start the day. I often hear people stateside whine on about how there are no good ones left, or that the croissant were fabricated elsewhere and only baked on premises. I say hogwash, I find them every trip and completely relish in the ancient alchemy of decadently crispy, buttery croissant still warm from the morning bake off. You know the kind, the ones that make a definite crunch when you break a piece off, sending golden shards of flaky pastry flying into the air.
Lucky France subsidizes boulangeries so every village has at least one, but I will concede, not every one is great. We accidently stumbled into Thierry and Elisabeth Cochard’s boulangerie while searching for the rumored vegetable market in Nolay early one morning. After circling the town several times in vain, we ran into the boulangerie to ask for directions. Elisabeth laughed and said the town’s farmers were lazy and they would never be there on time or ever for that matter. While she talked, I became transfixed by the sweet smell of baking baguettes, chaussons aux pomme and pain au chocolat. Rows and rows of perfectly cooked breads stared at me as I tried in vain to concentrate on her answers. We succumbed to a shameless amount of pastries before returning to Puligny Montrachet empty handed.
Fortified by a few more morning espressos and yet more croissant, I decided to cook instead of hitting a fabled Burgundian restaurant located in an old hunting lodge known equally for it’s straight up Beef Bourguignon as well as it’s extensive and cheap wine list. John and I became fixated with Bresse chickens sitting seductively in the local Grande Frais’s butcher case.
French supermarkets in general are child-like wonderlands for those that love and adore food. At some point, I always wonder how bad our food delivery systems are in the US compared to France. When I ordered the chickens, the butcher grabbed undeniably fresh bird and asked if I wanted it cleaned. I kind of looked at him strangely and had him repeat what he said. With my yes, he quickly picked up a cleaver and whacked the head and feet away. He slit the stomach open and cleaned the innards out, splitting the gizzards to clean the bird’s last meal then with surgical precision tied it up for roasting. I could never imagine a butcher at a Safeway doing the same thing.
Bresse Chickens are quite possibly the best chicken I have ever eaten. To paraphrase wikipedia a bit, the chickens of the Bresse region have long enjoyed a high reputation. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described the Bresse chicken as “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings”. Poulet de Bresse may be produced only from white Bresse de Bény chickens, raised within a legally defined area of Rhône-Alpes, Franche-Comté and Bourgogne.
The birds are kept free range for at least four months. From about 35 days they are fed cereals and dairy products; the diet is intentionally kept low in protein so that the birds will forage for insects. They are then “finished” in an épinette, a cage in a darkened fattening shed, where they are intensively fed on corn and milk. Pullets are fattened for two weeks, and slaughtered at a minimum age of four months and a minimum weight of 1.2 kilos. The birds are marketed with the head and characteristic slate-blue legs, traditionally a sign of authenticity. The left leg carries a metal leg-ring with the name of the producer.
What you end up with is the best tasting chicken you have ever tasted. It is hard to describe taste. What do you say about a chicken… it is the chickeniest chicken I have ever tried. I would say it is how chicken should be, perfectly textured, not mushy like a lot of American chicken and the breasts are perfect, not on steroids and four times bigger than they should be.
We had trouble getting the oven going so I decided to make a fricassee in a Faillot mustard sauce – a naturally great pairing for the local juice. We served a room temperature salad of ratte potatoes, cherry tomatoes and haricots vert. Lisa made her patented mache salad and we had semi ripe Cavaillon melons and a platter of cheese that could coagulate the veins of even the hardiest among us.
We picked up a few bottles from new found best friend Pascal, who runs a ‘hard to explain with one word’ wine enterprise below our deck at the rental. He offers tours, does tastings, brings over stray bottles, tells great stories, knows everybody and advises on great places to get anything you need to get in Burgundy and Beaujolais. He is the perfect accomplice to our bacchanalian overindulgences.