Quest for Bresse – a Lesson in the New French Culture

If you are staying in Bourgogne you don’t want to make just any Coq au Vin. You want to use the classic Chambertin wine, a flavorful red Burgundy produced in Gevrey-Chambertin, along the Côte-d’Or just outside of Dijon.  To go with your classic wine, you should also have the best chicken, poulet de Bresse, from the Rhône-Alpes region of Bourgogne, southeast of Dijon. This prized breed of bird has its own AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) ensuring that the quality is strictly controlled. With production limited and demand high, these birds are rarely seen outside of France, making it more imperative to use the real thing when you are in Burgundy.

That was our quest, finding the perfect bird for our Coq au Chambertin. Finding the wine was easy; finding the bird to go with it a lesson in the new French culture. We think of France as being a great gastronomic power house, dedicated to crusty baguettes, creamy and flavorful cheese and quality produce of all kinds. While this is generally true, in some areas such as Bourgogne, where the village populations are dwindling, towns are left with fewer services and more people are going to the supermarket in larger towns to buy their bread, meat and produce.

The French too are suffering from the Wal-Mart syndrome. Where we are staying in Mont-St-Jean the boulangerie has been replaced by a bread truck that makes stops at each of the surrounding villages. Selection is limited and you have to be ready at 9AM when the truck honks its horn. He’s gone by 9:05. I’m indeed missing the days in Calvisson of leisurely strolling down to the boulangerie to pick up fresh bread for breakfast. Butcher shops are rarer than bakeries. The larger towns may have half a dozen boulangeries but only, one or two boucheries

Quest for Bresse Chicken

Mont-St-Jean is located between two decent sized towns with services, Pouilly-en-Auxois and Saulieu, each about 20 minutes away. On our quest for Bresse we first checked out the butcher shop in Pouilly -closed for three weeks in June and wouldn’t reopen until we had departed the region.

We still had high hopes as we headed for the Tuesday food market in Gevrey-Chambertin. Certainly the famous wine town would have a poultry purveyor at the market. A beautiful drive through the wine villages of the Côte-d’Or. Land is precious here so practically every spare inch is devoted to grapes. Unfortunately in Gevrey-Chambertin there was no poultry purveyor and more disappointingly, no market. Maybe the website where I got the information failed to mention that it was a summer market only. Burgundy is still pretty dead in late June even with the more pleasant summery temperatures.


Still not discouraged we make our way down the Route des Grands Crus, through the towns of famous burgundies – Fixin, Nuits-St-Georges, Aloxe-Corton – to Beaune, all the while keeping an eye out for a butcher shop. Not one. But surely in Beaune we’ll find something. Beaune with its picturesque old town is a pleasant place to have lunch, tour the wine shops and specialty stores, and visit the famous Hotel-Dieu, a grand 15th century hospital for the poor.

Beaune is also home to Fallot mustard, considered one of the best in the world. I happened to pick up a jar at the local supermarket in Saulieu. But the butcher shops were terribly disappointing, carrying more charcuterie and prepared take-out food than specialty meats. Still no Bresse chicken.


On the way back home we decide to make one last effort and try our other town with services, Saulieu. Bigger than Pouilly and well-known for its beef, it’s sure to have a quality butcher shop. And it does, but they too are on vacation for the month of June. We wander around town and find a smaller butcher shop. She has a poulet fermier but not a Bresse. Running out of options, we buy the chicken. It’ll be a good even if it’s not a Bresse.

We then stop at the Atac supermarket to pick up some additional items. Just in case, we check the meat counter. Sure enough they have our Bresse chicken. It’s huge and expensive with the feet and head intact. This ensures you are getting the real thing, blue feet and white feather left on the neck. The butcher seems a bit incredulous that we want the big Bresse chicken and not the other more reasonable sized less expensive bird. But yes, we want the big Bresse chicken. Looking back we shouldn’t be surprised to find our prized bird at the supermarket. With the bigger markets replacing the smaller specialty shops, why wouldn’t you find the classics at the supermarket? This is France after all.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Burgundy page.