“You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken, While it does not require years of training to produce a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird, it does entail such a greed for perfection that one is under compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted, and that it is done just to the proper turn.”
Many of my favorite memories of France involve a roast or rotisserie chicken: a long ago lunch with cookbook author Anne Willan at her Burgudian château, a snowy picnic with my wife outside the gondola station below the summit of Mont Blanc, and the pleasure of smelling, selecting, and consuming countless high-quality birds from open-air market stalls across France. When given the option, I pick the poulet fermier, a slow-growing heritage bird that sells for considerably more than its commercial counterpart.
There are 17 breeds of French chickens to satisfy the greatest of gourmets. The most celebrated of these is the Bresse Gauloise, the only chicken in France with its own AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) designation. Other luminaries include the Gauloise Dorée, symbol of France and the oldest European race, the Houdan that dates to the 14th century, and La Flèche made famous by Henri IV (“a chicken in every pot”).
In one of his many Paris diaries, our own Louis Lafondue positively waxes poetic on the subject:
Once you were a dazed pedestrian walking through the market streets of Paris. No longer. A centrifugal force acts upon you when you see and smell those gently turning birds. The man tending the rotisserie on rue de Lévis carves with a steady wrist, skilled in working within the infinitesimal margins necessary in butchery. You’re ready now, packed in your market bag is the poulet fermier, pomme de terre avec jus, fromage from Androuet, a baguette from Delmontel, and a bottle of Chablis. In your coat pocket, a TGV ticket for Avignon.
Aboard the train you rip the paper bag. You take a tear of baguette, spread mustard with the Opinel. You place breast meat with crispy skin inside, Comté too. And then that first bite brings it all back. You could live easily in the coils of those transcendent memories. Every great chicken dish, the Poulet de Bresse with their necks elongated like a Modigliani; the Bocuse chicken barely visible beneath a mountain of morels and truffle; and that NoMad bird for two, with foie gras and brioche jammed into the slender boundary between skin and flesh. And yet, right now, nothing beats this simple iteration.
Of course Louis fails to mention how to eat said bird without making a monumental mess and provoking the ire, not to mention jealousy of fellow passengers, to which Louis responds: “C’est la vie!”