“If you really like chicken, you like it poached.

But poaching takes no pity on inferior birds”

Jean-Claude Miéral. Volailles Miéral, Montravel-en-Bresse

If there’s one single dish that would be a challenge to live without, and would certainly score highly on the ‘death row, last meal’ checklist, then roast chicken has certainly laid claim to pole position in our kitchen. Since my discovery last century of Simon Hopkinson’s acclaimed cookbook, appositely named Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994), and having faithfully  followed his lucid advice, roasting a chicken has become as uniformly fault-free as boiling an egg.  Although on the culinary spectrum, I still remain unsure as to which came first (oh, stop me).

Trailing way behind the Sunday roast was a chicken dish once dismissed as a gastronomic also-ran and suited mainly to dyspeptic aunties or convalescing cousins, but which has now been conferred with infinitely higher status in our kitchen. May I urge you to join me in quietly embracing the epitome of that French rural idiom – the gently poached chicken. Trust me, once you have cooked a thoughtfully-reared, free-running bird, in an aromatic court bouillon, you will find yourself wondering why you don’t prepare this consolingly succulent dish each and every week.

After all, with limited preparation, alongside the taxing demands involved in encouraging a pan of water to simmer, it tends to cook itself. And if you’re less than enthusiastic about making your own chicken stock, relax. You get litres of the stuff as a hands-free by-product. Hello risotto.

Hopkinson cites the French Poulet de Bresse as the finest chicken available. And there can be little argument that the French have taken both chicken rearing and cooking, along with egg-based recipes, to exalted heights. So, occasionally getting a little above themselves and being no strangers to the invocation of provincial stature, the French have conferred an unofficial poultry capital – the ancient province of Bresse in Burgundy – with its very own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The AOC is a moderately posh designation more frequently appended to wine, unsurprisingly then the birds have been appended with an immoderate price tag too. High cost, I know, does not automatically signify high quality; although I doubt that I need to share that with you, but low cost on the other hand can purposely obfuscate process when it comes to the life of a chicken. And, lest we forget, denatured growth incontestably provides denatured taste.

So sadly, we cannot ignore the cultural underbelly of the UK’s shrouded retail poultry trade.

“…inferior birds”, the bulk of which occupy our UK supermarket shelves, live miserable, cramped lives and are dosed with life-maintaining chemicals and frequently fed on GM derived pellets. These broilers are targeted to grow quickly – the fast food equivalent of Ben Johnson’s anabolic steroids – effectively lingering as denatured ‘eggs on legs’ until slaughter between 32-38 days. Their low retail cost indicates the insensitive shortcuts their lives have had to endure, ironically occupying more cubic space once set to roast in the oven than they were ever granted during their allotted span. Little better is the contradictory term ‘free range’, which in most cases only offers some restricted outside roaming – mainly reminiscent of the exercise regime cited by Oscar Wilde in his Ballad of Reading Gaol – although total lifespan to high protein-rationed ‘maturity’ rises to 56 days. ‘Organic’ chickens might make 72 days in a good year with the distinct  promise of marginally more outside activity, a benefit not always entirely reaped by its bewildered tenants.

So Jean-Claude Miéral, 4th generation poultry farmer and early gatekeeper to the Holy Grail of the Hubbard and Gauloises Bresse breed of chickens in Burgundy, in his desire to protect both quality and taste, incorporated some important guidelines that we need to assimilate for this understated supper. Miéral’s minimum maturation was set at 81 days, periodically reaching 110 days. In France, natural rearing, under the title of Label Rouge, includes a high percentage of non-medicated cereal foods and the opportunity to express innate behavior, scratching around for bugs and worms, often in grass carpeted woodland. Ironically, just the sort of misleading pastoral image you frequently find on shrink-wrapped supermarket packaging for clorinated chicken parts.

Unless you are dropping in on one of the Bresse chicken purveyors in Paris’s Rungis market on the way back from your annual sojourn on the Côte d’Azur, I imagine you are unlikely to ship your costly bird direct from the Miéral farm for a pop-up supper. But you may be pleased to know that a few UK farmers scrupulously adhere to this humane schedule as their declared culinary benchmark. And it is this distinctive, slow growing, natural existence, that makes them taste uncommonly delicious.

Helpful and knowledgeable farmers, Jacob and Nick at – www.fossemeadows.co.uk, not only rear and deliver wonderful Hubbard chickens, they have systemised the precepts of ethical farming here in the UK into a code of practice closely shadowing the Label Rouge in France. They are always more than happy to offer guidance on matters poultry. To locate farmers and food producers who provide both quality and care, I use – www.bigbarn.co.uk a Slow Food-endorsed website alongside – www.slowfood.org.uk/ff-producers

So unless you can lay hands on a delicious free-range chicken, I urge you to reschedule this poached supper until such time as you do.

Poached Chicken in Tarragon Sauce [Poularde à l’estragon] from Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare. A French Country Cookbook (1994) Jane Sigal

Serves 4, seamlessly

1 x 2 kg chicken, trussed with neck and giblets, but remove liver

2 carrots, thinly sliced

2 onions, quartered and studded with 2 cloves

I fennel bulb, chopped

1 sprig thyme

2 bay leaves

2 branches fresh tarragon, plus 2 tbsp chopped

3 litres water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

250 ml crème fraîche

In a casserole or stainless steel pot, big enough to hold all the ingredients, combine the chicken neck and giblets, carrots, onions, thyme, bay leaves, branches of tarragon and the 2 litres of water

Season lightly with salt

Cover the pot, bring water to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes

Add chicken, breast side up, to this court bouillon

Bring water back to the boil, then reduce the heat to low

Gently poach the chicken, covered, until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour

Leave the chicken in its the poaching liquid, off the heat, while preparing the sauce

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the crème fraîche, chopped tarragon and a little salt

Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring, then lower the heat

Simmer the sauce, stirring from time to time, until it thickens slightly 5 to 10 minutes


With a two-pronged fork lift the chicken out of the poaching liquid, letting it drain into the pot

Transfer the chicken to a carving board, remove strings and carve

Arrange on a warm platter and spoon some of the sauce over the chicken and serve

Pass the remaining sauce separately

Wine thoughts

 South of the Côtes d’Or, in the second mortgage, real-estate-world of vineyards that is Greater Burgundy; lies the Mâconnais. Here, cascading down the limestone hills of the region are vines carrying that chameleon varietal – Chardonnay. A grape that is capable of reflecting its winemaker as much as its terroir, and which has no single countenance amongst Macon’s various styles. In Pouilly-Fuissé we find a more affordable, softly structured, easy-going white than its northern neighbours. With a little bottle age, prompting the expectation of complexity and concentration, you will be greeted with a familiar bouquet of warm buttery brioche and gently spiced cinnamon. Fugitive hints of fresh, crisp orchard fruits with a vector of comice pears and white peaches, offer an almost vegetal foil to the herb infused poaching liquor and creamy delicacy of the chicken.