freezer has been largely devoid of chickens ever since I began hunting and
fishing for nearly all my meat several years back. I barely missed them--but
"barely" isn't completely. I guess I was waiting for that special chicken to
come into my life. I finally found one: the blue-footed chicken of Stanislaus
The blue-foot is an aristocrat among
chickens. Smaller than a typical Rhode Island or Leghorn, the bird has finer
features, a crimson comb, immaculate white feathers, and, of course, feet the
color of the sky at noon.
The California poulet bleu, as they're
called, are a variant of the French poulet de Bresse, which the great
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called the "queen of chickens, the chicken of
kings." It is not just a transplanted Bresse chicken, however. The French so
jealously guard their birds that their eggs cannot legally be taken from their
home region; attempts to smuggle them out have proved futile.
Gastronomes pay princely sums to dine on
a poulet de Bresse, which is typically roasted whole, then brought to the table
and carved on the spot. The signature blue feet are always left on--no blue
feet, no genuine poulet de Bresse. But alas, the bird has never been available
in the United States.
Years ago, Bob Shipley of Modesto didn't
much care about this sad fact; Shipley's a squab producer, known as Squab Bob
to other poultrymen. But Shipley also raised pheasants for the gourmet market
and became concerned when, back in the late 1980s, growers in Alabama flooded
the pheasant market with cheap birds. He remembers discussing this dilemma with
Canadian poultry breeder Pete Theissen and exotic meat purveyor Ariane Daguin
of D'Artagnan, when Daguin brought up the poulet de Bresse. Why not raise them?
As Shipley recalls the story, Theissen
was excited and began work on obtaining some birds.
"He tried to get them, but you just
can't," Shipley said. "They are very well protected."
Stopped by customs, Theissen figured out
from afar what made a French blue-footed chicken so special and bred for those
characteristics. It took fifteen years. Theissen thought about retiring in
2004, so Shipley drove up from Modesto to collect a flock of six hundred birds.
The timing proved crucial: just weeks after Shipley brought Theissen's
blue-foots to California, avian flu hit British Columbia and the Canadian
government slaughtered Theissen's flock.
"After all that work, all that was left
were in my backyard," Shipley said.
That left Shipley as the lone breeder of
blue-footed chickens outside France. Shipley now faced a pair of problems:
First, he is a squab breeder, and pigeons are not chickens. Second, what makes
the French poulet de Bresse so special goes beyond breeding--their diet is the
key to their special taste.
I have never eaten a real poulet du
Bresse. But I have eaten all sorts of chickens--free-range, pastured, organic,
barnyard "walking around" birds, and the like. And recently I ate one of
Poulet bleu are aristocrats for reasons
deeper than feathers and feet: dense but not tough, fat but not fatty, mature
but not wizened, and distinctly chicken-y, but not overwhelmingly so. The
"overwhelming" prize goes to a 5-year-old rooster I used for coq au vin two
years ago; it remains the bird with the most emphatic chicken flavor I've ever
eaten. But that old rooster was tough as iron. Poulet bleu are well-balanced
chickens, a lord among the nouveau-trendy Rosies or other mass-marketed,
So was my first blue-foot sampling the
perfect roast chicken? It was a truly excellent bird, yet I found myself still
wanting something extra--admittedly, I may not be the best judge for a normal
consumer. I am accustomed to eating pheasants, which are denser and more deeply
flavored than all but the oldest chickens, so I expect my birds to be toothsome
and rich. A poulet bleu does not compare to a pheasant by those standards. But
what it does offer that a pheasant lacks is tenderness, size, and a skin that
crisps up nicely without overcooking the breast; pheasant skin, like that of
old roosters, gets too tough and rubbery to crisp properly. Blue-foots offer an
"There's more texture to it; there's
more flavor to it," Shipley said, comparing a poulet bleu to a factory bird.
"And it has a crispier skin and has a paler look to it."
Andrew Carlson is one reason why
blue-foots taste so special. Carlson is a third-generation poultryman and has
taken over the breeding and raising duties from Shipley. He knows his chickens,
having raised everything from battery birds to free-range and organic birds.
Carlson beams when he watches them skritch around and cluck at each other in a
large barn outside of Patterson.
"They're wonderful chickens," he said.
"We don't push them. These chickens operate on what they want, not what we
Poulet bleu take 12 to 14 weeks to grow
to market size, which is only about 3 1/2pounds for the males. A supermarket chicken can reach close to 5 pounds
at just 42 days, but those birds are "forced," that is, given high-nutrient
diets with restricted access to exercise and space.
"They grow twice as long and are half
the size," Carlson said of the blue-foots.
Most chickens, even most free-range
birds, are water-chilled after slaughter. This can be a nasty process and is
thought to be a leading source of salmonella contamination in factory birds. It
can also bump up the weight of a bird as the carcass absorbs water. Poulet
bleu, like most high-end chickens, are air-chilled. This avoids contamination and
None but the French know exactly what
the poulet de Bresse birds eat, and individual farmers have their own special
feeds. That said, Carlson and Shipley have sussed out a few facts: The chickens
are fed milk solids, a variety of grains, alfalfa, and even mustard seeds. The
birds also eat flies that buzz around the barn.
"We're trying to replicate [the French
system] as close as we can," Carlson said.
Still, many connoisseurs who have eaten
both chickens say they prefer the Bresse to the California bird. It could be a
mental bias toward the original over the copy; think California cabernet versus
a Bordeaux. Or it could be that the French birds eat more insects than the
California birds, and that they are allowed to grow an additional month, making
their meat a touch denser.
The poulet bleu I bought from Shipley
was roasted simply at 450°F for 15 minutes, and then at 350°F for another 50
minutes. All I did to it was rub olive oil and salt on the skin and stuff the
cavity with sprigs of fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, and a wedge of lemon.
The skin emerged crispy and the breast
perfect, although I could have given the bird another 10 minutes more to set
the thighs better. Still, a simple roast chicken is a wonderful thing, and this
chicken elevated the dish to art. All it needed as an accompaniment were a few
summer tomatoes dressed in olive oil, some potatoes roasted underneath the bird--to
soak up the drippings--and a glass of a fine white wine. French, of course.
former line cook and commercial fisherman, Hank Shaw hunts or fishes for nearly
all his meat and grows or forages nearly all his fruits and veggies. He is a
staff writer for Edible Sacramento
and has written for Gastronomica, The Art of Eating, and Meatpaper. He runs the blog Hunter
Angler Gardener Cook (www.honest-food.net) as well as the Fish and Seafood
cooking site for About.com (http://fishcooking.about.com). He lives near
to Get California Poulet Bleu Chickens
best way for consumers to buy a blue-footed chicken is to order it online at
either D'Artagnan for $21 plus shipping (www.dartagnan.com ) or direct from the
cooperative Squab Producers of California (www.squab.com).
chefs should call Bob Shipley at 209-537-4744 to make arrangements. Modesto
Foods is the sole Northern California distributor.
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