I’m constantly amazed by the sheer number of French words and expressions for all things food and eating and how often they come into play. Your Métro car can be “plein comme un oeuf.” And contrary to what you might think, someone who tells you, “je ne suis pas dans mon assiette” isn’t looking for their dinner plate. A professor of mine once described two different procedures before the Conseil d’État (the highest administrative court in France) as “la procédure tartine au beurre“ and “la procédure sandwich.” Bref. This is serious stuff.
To further complicate matters, when it comes to shopping for food outside of the grocery store, things are often purchased from a merchant, which requires considerably more conversation: is that in kilos, livres, grammes or something else? Je coupe le fringues? C’est pour faire quoi? Sec, mi-sec ou moelleux? C’est pour aujourd’hui? I ordered “a book” of my favorite onions every week for months without realizing until one Sunday another woman in line turned to her friend and laughed at me. (The “onion guys” were nice enough to zip it). Steep learning curve aside, I can’t tell you how many great conversations I’ve had with willing marchands about the best way to pick, keep, and prepare whatever it is they’re selling, even if I happen to make a few French errors. If you come during off-hours people are more amenable to spend time chatting with you, and who better to get advice from than the experts themselves?
One of my biggest problems was meat. It’s one thing when everything is set out and labeled, but often it’s not that simple. Sure, it’s easy to pick a fruit or veggie that looks nice, but can you recognize the steak you want from a huge yet-to-be-cut hunk of meat? I couldn’t. Knowing what I wanted to cook, I’d walk into a boucherie and quickly realize I had nothing but a huge signboard with a list of prices to guide me and a long line of people behind me. (Panic!) Sometimes I’d end up with what I wanted. Other nights, dinner plans changed.
It wasn’t until I got into French cookbooks that I started to really get a handle on things. Normally, the huge, encyclopedic guides to all things gastronomie have at least a section on meats and their preparation. But, moving around from small apartment to small apartment has made those less attractive. I found this little retro book in an adorable shop in the 5e. The owner remarked that you don’t find many cookbooks like these around anymore. She’s right. Its pictures are really useful, so I forgive the occasional flourishes of 1980′s Nouvelle Cuisine ridiculousness: No rosettes in my baron please. And, game meat looks gamey enough without evergreen fronds and pinecones scattered around it, thank you.
I found that there isn’t a lot of information out there for Anglophones on buying meat in France. Those of us who’ve mostly interacted with meat already wrapped in plastic and labeled – and weren’t lucky enough to grow up with our amiable local butcher to prepare our Sunday roast – might feel a bit lost. But thankfully for those who want to know more about what they’re buying, there’s tons of information if you know what to look for. Personally, this ongoing learning experience has helped me feel much closer to my food, including the monetary and environmental costs of bringing it to my table, and improved my ability to choose and prepare what I eat. So, the idea for this little series was born. I’m no expert, but I’m happy to pass on what I’ve learned, largely through trial and error, some research, and my new favorite little, quirky cookbook.
“Volaille” is best equated to “poultry,” but generally includes domestic rabbit too. Not surprisingly, all things chicken alone in France amounts to a post in it of itself, so that’s all I’m going to get to here. But, there’s more to come!
Although what we generally call “chicken” covers a pretty large category of birds, it isn’t very obvious to the average American consumer. It’s no wonder, since according to the USDA, the top 3% of producers dominate one-third of the entire value of U.S. poultry production. In France, industrial-farmed chicken is widely available, but it’s far from the only choice. Although I can’t possibly discuss all of them, I’ll talk about some of the official designations for chicken and the types of chicken products out there.
Poulet, Poularde, Poule …
Birds are classified for sale according to their age and diet, and it’s important to know what’s best for the dish you want to make. Before we get into how they’re raised and where they come from, I’ll try to give definitions for the main ones here.
- Poulet – a male or female chicken between 8 and 10 weeks old.
- Poularde – a young, fattened female chicken.
- Poule – a hen or a mature female chicken raised primarily for egg laying. When sold for meat, they’re generally fattier and less tender than poulet and best prepared using a long, slow cooking method like a braise.
- Poussin - a very young male chicken (and a term of endearment for a male significant other). Poussins are quite tender, but will have less depth of flavor than a more mature bird.
- Coquelet – A young male chicken, slightly more mature than the poussin, but the same flavor issues apply. They’re often butterflied and then grilled or roasted.
- Chapon – “Capon” in English, a chapon is a fattened, castrated male chicken.
- Coq – au uncastrated male chicken (and the nickname for French national men’s sports teams. Allez les bleus!). The same cooking considerations for poules, above, go for these birds too.
- Poulet noire – Breeds of chicken with black or blue feet are often described as poulet noir, not to be confused with black-skinned breeds popular in Asian cooking.
- Poulet blanc and poulet jaune – Often chicken is labeled as either “blanc” or “jaune;” however, unlike the poulet noir, the difference has to do with its diet not its breed. Poulets jaunes are primarily corn-fed, which gives their skin a yellow color. I prefer it because I think it has a stronger flavor, but of course the choice is up to you.
Labels and other designations
Le Label rouge was introduced in the 1960′s as a means to encourage traditional food production and is administered by the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO). Out of the 470 French products awarded the Label rouge, 350 of them are either meat products or products used in their preservation, like salt. The first Labels rouges were awarded to chicken from Landes and Périgourd, which I talk a bit more about below. Chicken labeled “biologique” or simply “bio” (organic) is raised according to the Label Rouge requirements, and fed only organic products.
Another set of labels often awarded alongside the Label rouge are the indication géographique protégée (I.G.P.), the appellation d’origine protégée (A.O.P) and the spécialité traditionnelle guarantie (S.T.G.). As with most EU-speak, their English translations sound just as foreign: Protected Geographical Indication, Protected Designation of Origin, and Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, respectively. In short, available to all European Union products that fit their requirements, these labels are essentially dedicated to protecting traditional regional production.
Finally, the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (A.O.C.) is administered by the same body as the Label rouge, but has much stricter requirements. Originally intended as a designation for French wines, the A.O.C. now also covers other agricultural products as well. The Poulet de Bresse, below, was the first poultry product to receive the appelation in 1957, and remains the only type of chicken to have this title. A product can have a Label rouge and an EU label, but not a Label rouge and an A.O.C.
And now, the chicken
There’s a huge variety of poultry with various levels of protection under French and European law. There are 31 types of chicken raised in France that have both a Label rouge and an I.G.P. If you care about where and how the chicken you’re purchasing was raised these can be a good guide. I can’t possibly cover them all here without this post turning into a Dumasian undertaking, but here are a few examples:
Poulet de Landes – The poulet de Landes comes from southwest France and must be allowed to roam free without any enclosures. At night, the chickens naturally gather around a structure built on the property called a marensine. The birds are mainly corn-fed, and therefore considered “poulet jaune.” The capital, Saint-Sever, hosts an annual volaille festival during the first weekend in December.
Poulet du Périgord – Named after a region that no longer exists, these chickens are raised throughout what is now called la Dordogne in the northern part of southwest France. They’re fed a mix of grain and corn and must be raised in an area with space of at least two square meters per chicken.
Poulet et oeufs de Loué – Free-range and grain-fed, poulet de Loué is the specialty chicken most commonly found in grocery stores here, although your local butcher might have it too. A wide variety of poultry is produced in this area in northwestern France, including poulet blanc, noir and jaune, along with guinea fowl, duck, goose, and turkey. Eggs produced there are the only ones in France to have the Label rouge and an I.G.P. Last year, an advertising campaign for poulet de Loué caused some controversy, featuring gendarmes, members of the French Republica Guard, with their slogan “un bon poulet est un poulet libre.” (A good chicken is a free chicken. “Poulet” is also slang for police.)
Poulet de Bresse – The only one in France to receive an A.O.C. designation, le poulet de Bresse is the most expensive and sought after breed. They’re free-range and primarily corn-fed in addition to what they’re able to graze. Turkey is also produced here, but represents a comparatively small portion of sales. Because of their value and prestige, the poulets de Bresse are meticulously marked with the A.O.C. label; a silver ring on their left leg; and a blue, white and red seal with the breeder’s identifying information. I’ve never seen them sold in Paris any way besides whole, often with the feet still attached. Every year in early December, the best poultry producers from the region are recognized in a competition called Les Glorieuses de Bresse.
For those of you who are interested, I’ll be continuing my series of buying meat and poultry in France. But don’t worry, veg friends and family, there’ll be some non-meat-related posts mixed in there too.
Buying Meat in France – Other posts in this series:
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