08 February 2010

Label Rouge chickens

A couple of days ago I cooked a chicken. It was a Label Rouge bird that came from a poultry producer in the town of Ancenis, which is on the Loire River between Nantes and Angers. And it was a poulet blanc — a "white" chicken — as opposed to another chicken, a poulet noir or "black" chicken, that I had bought in January and that came from Brittany.

A Label Rouge farm-raised "white" chicken

But don't worry. The poulet blanc and the poulet noir both had the same color flesh. It was the color you expect in a chicken. Both were Label Rouge birds. That means they were raised and processed according to government-sanctioned standards that were defined in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It was back then that what we call "agribusiness" — industrialized agriculture — was coming into being. The government wanted to encourage farmers to continue following traditional practices and producing high-quality products, as a way of protecting both farmers and consumers.

I decided to butterfly the chicken by cutting out the backbone.
Thanks, Julia Child (in The Way to Cook).

The Label Rouge ("red label") standard was published in 1960 and the first Label Rouge was awarded in 1965 to chickens raised in the Périgord (a.k.a. La Dordogne) and in Les Landes in southwestern France. Those birds had to be farm-raised, free-range, "yellow" chickens — « poulets jaunes fermiers élevés en liberté ». Nowadays in France, we have white, black, and yellow chickens to choose from.

« Domaine » is one of those French words that looks like
it should be feminine, but turns out to be masculine.

The five guiding principles in the production of Label Rouge chickens in France are:
  • The chickens must be traditional breeds that are suited to free-range environments and are known to mature slowly and to produce exceptionally high-quality meat.
  • They must be farm-raised outdoors in spacious enclosures, in small flocks, and in shady, grassy environments.
  • They must be fed natural feed composed of grains (a minimum of 75% to 80% according to breed) and other vegetable proteins (peas, soy, rape seed, and sunflower seeds), with no animal "meals" or fats in their diet.
  • They must be slaughtered at a more advanced age than are most chickens — sometimes they are twice as old — and therefore their meat will be firmer and more flavorful because it comes from mature birds.
  • They are guaranteed fresh and sanitary, raised and processed according to strict hygiene standards, and have a short shelf-life.
The label says the chicken was raised outdoors, fed a 100% vegetarian
diet (75% grain) with minerals and vitamins. It was 81 days old when
it was slaughtered and was subject to strict regulations before it even
hatched and all the way to delivery of the product to the customer.

Yellow chickens are actually yellow, flesh and skin, compared to black and white chickens, which both have whiter skin and flexh. I've read that yellow chickens are corn-fed, and it's the corn that gives the chicken its yellow color, or at least accentuates it. It may also be that "yellow" refers to the chicken's plumage, as it does, I think, when it comes to black and white chickens. In other words, black, yellow, and white are broad descriptions of various breeds.

Baste it with melted butter and set it about
8 inches below the hot broiler element for 10 minutes
before turning it over. Baste frequently with butter
and then with the pan juices until it's done.

The poulet blanc that I cooked a couple of days ago was, according to the label, at least 81 days old when it was slaughtered. It weighed almost exactly 3 lbs. — 1.35 kg — as sold, which was « prêt à cuire (P.A.C.) » — "ready to cook" — plucked, gutted, with no giblets, feet, or head. And it was delicious. The breast meat was perfect. The meat of the legs and thighs was firmer but not stringer or tough.

The butterflied chicken cooks a lot faster than a whole chicken.
The legs and thighs cover the breast, which needs less cooking,
and protect it from the high heat of the broiler this way.

I bought this chicken at the supermarket, wrapped in plastic, on a styrofoam tray. At the outdoor markets, the chickens and other fowl are often sold whole and then plucked, trimmed, and cleaned when they are sold. Usually, you choose and pay for the bird, get a ticket from the vendor, go around and do the rest of your shopping, and then stop by and pick up the P.A.C. bird before you leave the market. You can ask to keep the feet and head if you want them.


  1. This way of cooking chicken is what we would call in England a "spatchcock chicken" I believe. I have never cooked it that way myself but funnily enough we were talking about it to a friend at the weekend because she had recently been to a cookery demonstration where it had been done.

  2. I wish our chickens had a French life! 81 days seems quite short still, but I guess it's pretty long for a chicken.

    Do the poultry dealers at the market bring their own plucking machines?

    I love the wrapping for your chicken! Did you totally broil the chicken? How long did it take to cook?

  3. Jean, I think I've also heard it called a flattened chicken. In fact, here's a video that shows how to remove the backbone.

    Evelyn, Julia says to broil the chicken skin side down for 12 minutes, basting it with melted butter every four minutes. Then turn it over and broil it 12 minutes longer, basting it with the pan juices. We left it in the over a little longer than that, until it was browned the way we wanted it. All together, it cooked for maybe 35 minutes. It was delicious.

    Actually, at the market, most of the chickens are already plucked but with head and feet still attached. Some are not plucked, but I've never stayed and watched how they do the plucking.

  4. Interesting post. Never knew there were so many chicken options! Do you ever buy the non-rouge label chickens? Can you tell a difference in taste? Thanks for your insights into aspects of life in France that so many of us are unaware of!

  5. Hi Ch., I have bought the non-labeled chickens, and most of the time they are good. But sometimes the meat is kind of mushy or mealy. The taste is fine. I know it is politically incorrect to buy such chickens, which are battery-raised. Industrial. On those, chickens, the dark meat is better than the white mean. On the Label Rouge chickens, the white meat is better and the dark meat is a little tough.

  6. It is because of today's post that I really miss France. Someone (american) at work the other day was saying that in Europe there might be the same BS as in the US but at least people know how to live and have fun.
    I would think they know how to eat well and know the difference, have an enriching cultural life too. Maybe the big difference is that on one side people want fast, easy, blend life and on the other side, they demand quality. (I am lucky to be able to have both).

  7. PS : it's 9 am and I am craving chicken. Thanks a lot!

  8. Last time I was in France I had a famed Bresse chicken--ah, delicious! What makes them so special?

    I'm wondering how the Red Label chickens can be "100% vegetarian fed" if they're truly free-range; won't they be eating lots of tasty bugs?

  9. Good question, Leslie. I guess the 100% vegetarian diet refers to the feed they are given. I assume there would be nothing to stop them from eating worms and bugs.

  10. Ken, what an excellently explained post. Kudos!

    I'll just point my visiting friends to your site next time they ask lots of questions about the differences between the various clawed, "labeled" birds.

    I also go for "labeled" and jaune bio, but my particular fancy these days is the succulent pintade--guinea hen raised in the backyard of my butcher (which I braised in milk, garlic en chemise, sage,a cinnamon stick and lemon zest over the weekend). As tender as all get out!

  11. We hear so many awful descriptions of the way industrialized chickens are raised and slaughtered, that sometimes I dream of raising my own. I'd like to have the option of buying such a carefully raised bird. But I'm sure the care has a price. Would you care to tell us the average price of such a chicken?

  12. Dan, prices are all over the map. I talk about it a little in tomorrow's post. By the way, I've thought about keeping chickens but haven't done so yet. We have new neighbors three houses down who have some chickens in a pen in their back year. We can hear the rooster crowing in the morning.

    Tammy, you are lucky to get fresh organic (I assume) guinea hens like that. The recipe sounds good too. Thanks for you comment and your blog address.

  13. Mouthwatering! We've started buying "organic" chicken and noticed a huge difference in flavour and texture. Here in our part of Canada there is an emphasis on "medication free" meaning no hormones or antibiotics which I gather are routinely included in the feed of battery chickens. (I once went shopping for a package of cheap chicken legs with a health conscious young friend who said "Hmph, those legs probably all came from the same chicken.") Eww, gross!

  14. How much does one pay for a chicken bought from the outdoor market?

  15. How nice to be able to buy and eat chicken without having to worry about added hormones, offal feed and inhumane raising conditions. I avoid factory-farmed chicken as much as possible and never eat the skin, because the chemicals accrue there.
    I wish the US would get smart about the health costs of lousy food.
    Hah--word verification is "perfect." A good description of this very helpful post. Thanks.

  16. Last year we tasted some Bresse chicken. It was delicious and I loved all the rules that ensure they have a happy life and respectful death.(If that makes sense.) We drove around the area and looked at one of the farms. I was really impressed.
    The wing bone on the chicken I ate was as thick as a normal legbone! All that running around and flapping I guess.
    I only buy free range chicken here, and it is not greatly more expensive than the other. I also only buy free range pork here, which is a little harder to find, and a lot dearer.
    Does fermier mean free range or farm raised? Or are they the same?
    Spatchcocked chickens also cook well on the barbecue. I love doing them that way. Easier to carve also.Sue

  17. I almost got to have a Bresse chicken when I was in the Lyon area a few years ago (in 2000, actually!), but the restaurant we were going to go to was closed, and the one we went to was out of it :((

  18. Just read about your neighborhood rooster- I love to hear their crowing! I wonder if Callie would adjust to some hens around?

    I'm reading Kingslover's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and there's quite a bit of chicken talk in the book.

  19. It is always interesting to see which of your posts evoke the most comments. Appparently chickens were a big hit.

  20. Cheryl, isn't it?

    Sue, fermier means farm-raised. Free-range is élevé en liberté (en plein air = outdoors). I don't know if their are farm-raised chickens that are not free-range. Actually, in the U.S. at least, they say that free-range doesn't really mean much, because so-called free-range chickens are sometimes restricted to very small spaces. But they are outdoors at least a little bit.

  21. The chicken looks delicious actually :)
    ~ Amaira


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