A slow growing breed of Breton chicken with a spectacular pair of legs
It’s the legs that get you. From the thigh up, it looks like a regular chicken: black feathered, yes—you probably guessed that from its name—but it’s the legs of the poulet noir that really stand out. They are long—around 12cm and “really big and lean”, says Katherine Frelon, a chef, cookery teacher, French food expert and regular face in the Borough Market Demo Kitchen. Though they are not the “aristocrat of modern table poultry”—that accolade must go to poulet de Bresse, the poulet noir’s cousin—the wild, gamey flavour of these Brittany-born chickens mean they are almost as prized.
“It’s as if they could be wild chickens,” Katherine continues. While a poulet de Bresse is fattened for a few weeks at the end of its life, the poulet noir keeps roaming and scratching until slaughter. Reared in accordance with the guiding principles of Label Rouge, the French badge of quality poultry, poulets noir are farm-raised in small flocks outdoors, in shady, grassy environments, and a have a significantly longer life—81 to 110 days, which is almost twice as long as your average British bird. Their diet of grains and vegetable proteins is supplemented by foraging, making this bird a unique reflection of the Breton terroir and earning it PGI protected status. Ginger Pig sells British chickens of course—excellent, flavoursome birds—but the French have breeds you simply can’t get anywhere else.
A specific breed
Hence Ginger Pig’s weekly trips to Rungis, the famous market located just outside Paris. “A French cook will probably specify a particular breed or region for their chicken, rather than simply free range, corn fed or organic. We love being in a position to stock the rich variety France has to offer,” says Amelia at Ginger Pig’s head office. It took months to get a permit, but today Ginger Pig is one of the few British butchers with buying rights at Rungis.
“Slow growing, leg meat-heavy breeds are not commonly reared in the UK, and the poulet noir is up there with some of the best,” says George, at the Borough Market’s stall. “Last week, I chopped it up and my wife braised it in white wine for 45 minutes, and it was delicious. The meat is a little tougher than that of your average chicken, on account of it being free range—but you just need to cook it for longer. It’s perfect for classic, slow-cooked French dishes like coq au vin.”
Which is where Katharine comes in, with her consummate knowledge of French cuisine. “There are a couple of perfect traditional dishes like poulet grand-mère, where you stuff the chicken with things like mushrooms and smoked lardons—or at this time of year, olives and tomatoes—before browning in a pan. Sautéing the skin in fat or butter really keeps in the flavour,” she continues. “The poulet noir has very little fat under the skin, so they need a bit of help to stop them drying out.” Rubbing the bird with olive oil, duck fat or butter before cooking, and larding with bacon or lardons, works well, Katherine advises.
“They are quite big birds, especially the legs, so they can take some cooking, but you will definitely taste the difference.” Flavoursome and crisp skinned with a beautiful succulence—lavish some attention on the spectacular legs of a poulet noir and you will more than reap the rewards.