14 December 2010

Poultry, selon Tante Marie

I've been reading a lot about chickens recently. In cookbooks, of course. I came across this introduction to a chapter about poultry in a 1920s cookbook with the title La Véritable Cuisine de Famille, written by a woman who called herself Tante Marie (tante means "aunt").

The cookbook's title page

This chapter introduction explains the different types of chickens you can buy in France. This is especially interesting to me, I guess, because I live here now. Some of the terms defined here are ones I've seen but have never completely understood before.

Volaille (Poultry)

The term
volailles (poultry) includes poules (hens), poulardes (pullets), chapons (capons), poulets (chickens), oies (geese), pigeons, and dindons (turkeys).

Poules are females that have begun to lay. Poulardes are young hens that are carefully fattened and that have not yet begun to lay.

Chapons are young male chickens that have been castrated, fattened with care and kept in little cages where light hardly ever penetrates.
Here's the text in French.
Poulets de grain are free-range chickens. Chickens called poulets à la reine ("the queen's chickens") are confined in small cages starting when they are three or four months old and then fattened over a period lasting at least two months.

Young chickens have very large feet and knees compared to older chickens. The males possess a vestigial heel claw or spur (l'ergot). If the spur is not very prominent, the bird is young. If, however, it is well developed, the bird is old and therefore should not be chosen for roasting.
We cooked a turkey breast (with the wings) for Christmas
in 2003, our first year in Saint-Aignan.
A chicken should be as tender as possible, unless it's one you plan to use only for making broth. In that case, you can use an old hen. If possible, choose a chicken with thin white skin and nice meat. The chicken should be killed at least two days before you are planning to eat it. If you can't wait two days, then feed the chicken a teaspoonful of vinegar one minute before killing it, and store the carcass in a cool place.

Pluck the chicken as soon as you've killed it and then gut it to avoid having the intestines impart a bad taste to the meat. Once it is gutted, pass the carcass over a flame to remove any hairs and little feathers that remain, and lay the feet over glowing coals to remove the outer skin, which is tough and dirty.
I'm not sure why canards (ducks) are not included in the classification along with chickens, geese, pigeons, and turkeys. Or pintades (guinea fowl) either. Also coqs (roosters in American English), as in coq au vin... I see coqs being sold in the markets (and have bought them), so they are available nowadays, as are all the other types of poultry mentioned here.

When we buy poultry in the open-air markets, the birds often still have the head and feet on them. The vendor — le volailler — cleans them for you so that they are ready to cook when you get them home. But if you want you can take the volaille home and do it yourself. I'm sure you can ask to keep the head and feet, but I've never done so.


  1. Bonjour Ken,
    Je suis un peu moins occupée, alors je te fais un p'tit coucou sur ton blog :-) J'ai la réunion parents-profs à mon lycée ce soir, j'espère que la route pour remonter dans ma pseudo campagne ne sera pas trop verglacée...
    About chicken, when I buy one at my butcher's, I ask him to cut away its head, otherwise, he leaves it. On the other hand, I ask him to leave the liver and gizzard because we love "les abats"/giblets at home. Most of the time, when you ask for a poultry, butchers cut away legs but leave the head because some people love eating or preserving in fat(in the south west of France) the neck of the chicken, duck, etc., but they ask you if you want or not giblets...
    Now, I have to get ready to drive to Rouen to work... Bises :-) Mary/Marie

  2. OMG -- La cuisine de Tante Marie was my very first cookbook here. I bought it at the Eyrolles bookstore (ground floor of the engineering school) next to the Pierwige, which I know you know. I still consult it, although lack of a logical table of contents (in the back, of course, as in all French books) and no index make it difficult. The cover has come off from overuse.

  3. I have Tante Marie's French cakes and pastries, an English edition from 1955.

    Fascinating, all that lore about chickens. Here we have no choice; the supermarkets sell only youngish birds.

  4. Hello Marie;) I'm sure that I would ask my butcher to remove the head and feet also.

    I forgot about burning the skin after the plucking, my Dad must have done that also since he was a poultry dealer, but it's not in my memory bank (I've lost lots of other more important stuff in there as well).

    I remember the plucking machine well and also the big vat of boiling hot water the chicken was dipped in. Pretty yucky memories...but chicken is good eats.

  5. When I was a kid (10 or 12), my father raised his own chickens and I frequently got watch the processes involved in having a chicken dinner.

  6. Ken, I wonder how much of the 'caging without light' and 'keeping in a very small cage" still goes on?
    And how do you castrate a male fowl... all the organs are inside!?
    In the UK a chapon is called a capon.
    I love the look of that book... my brother gave Pauline and I a couple of 1900's French cookery tomes he found in a bookshop. They are huge... we need to build a lectern to stand them on to read.

  7. Hi Marie, thanks for those details. The chickens and guinea fowl we buy at the market are prepared for the oven: feathers burned off, feet and head removed, but the giblets (liver, heart, and gizzard) are given to us with the bird.

    Ellen, my Tante Marie cookbook has a good index. Sorry yours doesn't. Mine has no copyright or publication date in it, but I've been told it dates from the 1920s.

    Hi Carolyn, I'm surprised you don't get stewing hens there. I think you can still buy them in N.C. Or maybe you have to order then from the butcher at the supermarket.

    Hi Evelyn, I had almost forgotten that your father was a poultry vendor. So you have seen all this before. When I was growing up, my grandfather kept chickens and killed and dressed them himself, but I never witnessed it. We ate them though. He died in 1969.

    Starman, you too, eh. Think how most people have no idea what is involved in getting meats into those plastic packages we buy at the supermarket.

    Tim, there's a step by step description of the processs of castrating a rooster at


  8. Thank goodness I can buy my chickens at either the market or the local marché (from local farmers - which unfortunately I have not done as yet) and do not have to kill the chickens myself. When I was very young, I saw the end result of my grandmother having cut the head off a chicken (the chicken was running around the yard with it's head cut off) before my Mother ushered me back into the house. My Grandfather might have actually done the dastardly deed, I don't remember. He died in 1966.

    When there's an opportunity to find such an interesting cookbook, I'll get it! Thank you Ken for sharing yours with us.

  9. I don't know whether or not to click that link Ken... I might out of sheer curiosity!
    But the word verification is "unded" so perhaps not!?!?

  10. Why the teaspoon vinegar a minute before killing, do you suppose?

    I was a party to chicken-beheadings as a child, watching my Italian grandmother do the deed and then helping to pluck and singe the bird. A grisly business... but as Evelyn says, chicken is good eats.

  11. Ken, I forgot to ask... what is the orange mashed veg in your 2003 Xmas meal?

  12. I've looked at the link... talk about complex!
    I notice it is from America's Rural Good Buy Guide... The Sears Roebuck Catalogue.... my father was a buying agent and dealt a lot with the States. We often had access to a Sears catalogue as I grew up... a world of wonders! And a country that hasn't [like France] forgotten how to preserve the excess produce.

  13. The weather forcast for today is snow... the word verification has come up "sledisms".... hmmmm!

  14. Hi Tim, about that orange mash: it was probably butternut squash. Or maybe sweet potato. Can't remember, of course, seven years later!


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