One of the things I have really come to appreciate about French cuisine, and the people who make their living growing and cooking food, is the respect for terroir. As I have wandered the markets and foodstalls over the last two weeks I have been continuously surprised at the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) designations for things like cheese, honey, foie gras, and even butter.
I had no idea prior to this trip that AOC designation applied to anything but wine. But after seeing and experiencing what I believe are the best food products in the world, and learning how seriously the growers and producers take their craft, I have new respect for the AOC designation and its importance in protecting smaller producers and keeping food production sustainable.
While AOC designations come with a multitude of regulations, which American growers would likely find too restrictive, the regulations stem from a respect for what the earth can sustainably produce, and an understanding that where animals are concerned the better the animal is treated in production, the higher quality food it will yield. Makes sense to me. Happy plants/animals = happy, healthy food = happy, healthy people. Beyond that, EU (European Union) regulations mandate that no subtheraputic antibiotics or growth hormones can be used on any animal contributing to the food supply. Pesticides and Herbicides that are indiscriminately used by large factory farms here in the US are strictly regulated, and at times outright banned for use on food crops…Paris proper has banned the use of all herbicides and pesticides in its parks and gardens, and in a time where the honey bee population has suddenly and dramatically declined worldwide by more than 30%, Paris has experienced an explosion of honey thanks to its thriving bee population. There are rooftop and garden apiaries all over the city, and during honey harvest time, you can purchase honey from the hives at Opera Garnier, the Jardin des Luxembourg, and the Pere Lachaise cemetery among other places. And we wonder why the EU longevity is higher and per capita healthcare costs are lower! Maybe, just maybe, respecting the earth has something to do with it……but I digress…
I had the good fortune to strike up a relationship with the extraordinarily kind people at the boucherie (butcher) just steps from my apartment. To share conversations with people who are so proud of the quality of their goods, and who love to talk about which person made the sausage and the foie gras, and where the best chicken and ham comes from, is for me a delightful and profound gift. Not only was I, a stranger speaking not-so-great French, welcomed unconditionally, but we also quickly discovered our mutual appreciation and passion for quality food. (So much so, that the kitchen divas in training and I brought them a freshly prepared box of my Oma’s cut-out cookies!) This enthusiasm, and yes- joy, seemed to permeate even their smallest interaction with people. Although I experienced this most profoundly at le boucherie, I saw this same passion and joy in most of the shops I frequented on my little market street; people deeply knowledgeable about their craft and willing to share their knowledge if given the chance. And while I didn’t get to know the other shopkeepers as well as I would have liked, I did have the pleasure of learning about Bresse chicken, and received a mini-butcherie demonstration to boot!
It is said that Bresse chicken is the best in the world. It received AOC designation in 1957, and growers are required to give a minimum of 10 square meters (107 square feet) of land per chicken- talk about free range! They grow up outside where they are allowed to live as chickens, eating bugs and weeds, and then, just before they’re brought to market, they are brought inside to rest for a week and fed nothing but the finest grains. This is what gives the meat its white color and beautiful texture. And yes- I have to say the texture of this meat was unequaled.
I have to admit, that I was a little concerned about preparing such a fine bird. I was terrified that I would overcook or undercook it, and either way, ruin it, and have to report back to monsieur le boucher that I had ruined the best bird in the world. Thankfully, I nailed it, and it truly was a Christmas dinner to remember. After reading up on le Bresse, I opted for a fricassee, something that I never tried before, but that was recommended for more gamey types of meat. And, since we were in Paris, I thought it would be great to try something from Patricia Wells “Paris Cookbook”. I found a nice recipe, but of course didn’t have the discipline to leave it alone. Below is my significantly altered version of her Chicken with Morels and Cream. It was pretty delicious, and I even went so far as to spend the extra coin for dried morels- why not? The best bird deserves the best mushroom at least once! For dessert, we enjoyed a fabulous gluten-free pastry from Strohrer- the oldest patisserie in Paris, and just steps from my door. But you’ll have to wait until my macaron post to read about that!!
In conclusion, my heartfelt thanks to the dear people at Boucherie Davin. . Getting to know you has been the highlight of my trip, and I hope to be back soon buying sausage, ham, foie gras, and yes, another Bresse Chicken.
Bresse Chicken Fricassee with Apples, Morels, and Thyme
Serves 4-6 people
1 4-5 lb chicken (preferably a Bresse or free range chicken), separated into 8-10 segments
4 tbs butter + 2-3 tbs extra
2 cups dried Morels (can substitute dried porcinis or criminis)
2 shallots, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 cups cidre (hard apple cider) or a white wine with apple & pear overtones
2 apples, peeled and diced- about 2 cups (use a Comice or a similar yellow skinned apple)
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, bound with string + 4 tbs fresh thyme leaves
1 cup of heavy cream
salt to taste
Reconstitute the morels by rinsing thoroughly under cold water until all the gritty bits have been removed. Then place morels in a heat safe dish and just cover with boiling water. Allow to sit while you brown the chicken. You can save the mushroom water and use for vegetable stock. Remove the reconstituted morels using a slotted spoon.
Preheat a large dutch oven or similar vessel on medium-high. When you can feel the heat emanating from the bottom of the pan, add 4 tbs of butter and allow it to foam. Place 3-4 chicken pieces in the pan at a time, allowing the skin to become a deep golden brown- about 5 minutes on each side. To keep the butter from scorching, use a spoon to lift the butter over the chicken pieces, adding more butter to the pan if necessary. Remove browned chicken to a plate and lightly salt. When all the pieces have been browned, pour off most of the fat from the pan, leaving the browned bits.
Reduce heat to medium and add another tablespoon of butter and allow to foam. Add shallots and garlic and allow to soften in the butter. Do not let the garlic burn as it will turn bitter. Add the apples and the thyme sprigs, and stir for one minute. Add the cidre or wine, turn up the heat to medium high, and allow the wine to boil for 5 minutes to eliminate the alcohol.
Add the morels to the pan and stir gently. Add the heavy cream and stir to incorporate. Return the browned chicken to the pan, as well as any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Arrange the pieces so they all fit on the bottom of the pan, and spoon some of the mixture over the top. Reduce heat to medium, cover and allow to cook for 30 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, turn the chicken pieces so that the side on top is now submerged in the mixture. Ladle some of the mixture over the chicken, and recover.
When you are ready to plate, place a piece of chicken in a shallow bowl or plate, ladle some of the cream mixture over the top, and sprinkle a teaspoon of fresh thyme over both the chicken and the morel apple mixture. Serve with a glass of the cidre or wine that you cooked with. In other words, you should only cook with wine you would enjoy drinking! Et Voilà!