We are all familiar with the Christmas carol: the enthusiastic lover demonstrating an undying devotion with an amazing array of poultry, jewelry, musicians and more. While the plethora of presents is for the most part impractical by today’s standards (and probably by 18th-century standards, too), one gift amongst the dozen deserves further consideration: the three French hens.
Why French hens above all other breeds? The English of yore had a passion for French fashion, be it clothing, hair styles or gastronomy. Britain’s Francophilia extended well beyond coiffure, couture and cuisine, so their favoring the French breeds of chicken above other Continental varieties is completely understandable.
A less romanticized explanation is that the English simply confused the term Gallic, meaning French, with Gallus gallus, the scientific name for chicken. Whatever the reason might be for including French hens as a gift for one’s true love, you will love adding this trio of French chickens to your backyard flock.
No other breed (French hens or otherwise) quite compares with the Gauloise Blanche de Bresse. This breed is fiercely beloved as a national treasure by the people of France, who use the image of the Bresse rooster on currency, military and athletic uniforms, and as a symbol of France itself. It is the only breed of chicken that bears the coveted Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée status, awarded by the French National Assembly in 1957, and the Appelation d’Origine Protégée, awarded by the European Union.
As such, the Bresse can only be raised in a specified geographic area, its breeding overseen by a single entity, the Comité Interprofesionnel de la Volaille de Bresse (CIVB). The CIVB’s hatcheries produce approximately one million chicks each year, which are distributed to several hundred approved poultry farms to be raised according to very strict standards.
These include access to spacious meadowlands (a minimum of 10.2 meters per bird) and a prescribed diet of non-GMO cereal grains and dairy products. The Bresse metabolizes its feed in a unique way and develops certain types of muscles in a unique rate that makes the breed genetically unique. The resulting meat is luscious, marbled and so flavorful that renowned epicurean Brillat-Savarín called the Bresse “the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings” in his 1825 book La Physiologie du Goût.
The Gauloise Blanche de Bresse was first documented in 1591, appearing in the registers of Bourg-en-Bresse. The bird reflects the colors of the French flag in its appearance, with a bright red single comb, white plumage and smooth blue legs. At maturity, males weigh approximately 7 pounds and hens weigh approximately 5 pounds.
Bresse birds are efficient foragers, grazing for one third of their diet on their own. Bresse hens produce an average of 4 or 5 medium-sized, cream-colored eggs per week (about 250 per year). They are friendly, cold-hardy birds and a great addition to any flock. Bresse can be purchased in the United States through McMurray Hatchery and Greenfire Farms, both of which designate their birds as American Bresse to reflect their breeding and resting outside of the French controlée laws.
Originating from the town of Creve-Coeur in Normandy, this distinctive dual-purpose bird is one of the oldest chicken breeds in France, its existence documented as far back as the 12th century. The Crevecoeur was raised primarily for its high-quality meat, with fine white breast meat and dark, rich leg meat.
Its succulence led to its downfall. During World War II, the German army reached Normandy and, within two years, all the Crevecoeurs (minus the few that had been hidden away) had been eaten. Because of this, the Crevecoeur is critically endangered at an international level.
Efforts are now underway in France, Australia and the U.S. to recover this breed.
Crevecoeurs are quiet, friendly birds with sweet dispositions. They make excellent pets, especially when handled frequently as chicks. Males reach a mature weight of 8 pounds while females reach 6.5 pounds. The females produce approximately three medium to large eggs per week (about 150 per year).
Crevecoeurs are black in color, with blue-black legs, black beaks that shade down to a gray-horn color at the beak, and red-brown eyes. They sports full beards and crests, both of which have a tendency to frost over in winter, although they contentedly adapt to most climates. Like Polish chickens, Crevecoeurs’ crests tend to obscure their eyesight, so covered runs should be a serious consideration.
It’s the Crevecoeur’s most unique feature, however, that captures attention: its V-shaped comb. Because of it and its crest, the Crevecoeur tends to be bullied and should only be raised with chickens with similarly gentle temperaments. Crevecoeur chicks can be purchased at both McMurray Hatchery and Greenfire Farms.
Considered one of the best breeds of chicken produced in France, the Faverolles originated near the village of Faverolles southwest of Paris. While several color varieties exist, only the Salmon Faverolles is recognized by the American Poultry Association.
With its compact, stocky body; abundance of fluffy feathers; and ability to lay eggs during the colder, minimally daylit months, the Faverolles is the ideal bird for flock owners in northern climates.
Female Faverolles lay three to four tinted eggs per week (about 150 to 200 per year). They are excellent broodies, setting eggs from other breeds as well. They make caring, responsible mothers.
Both male and female Faverolles are friendly and docile, yet energetic, alert and curious. The Faverolles will loudly call out if it sees an unknown animal approaching, making it a welcome addition to any flock.
At maturity, the male Faverolles weighs about 8 pounds and the female approximately 6.5 pounds. The Faverolles is feather legged, with five toes per foot and a full beard to match its fluffy body.
One striking and convenient trait with the Salmon Faverolles: The chicks auto-sex by four weeks of age, with the cockerels’ wings being black and white while the pullets’ wings turn a multicolor mix of salmon, black and white.
As adults, the males feature a black beard, white hackles and color blocks of white, black and dark coppery brown on the rest of its body, similar in pattern and coloration to a Golden Duckwing. The females become a beautiful cream color topped with a layer of salmon feathers.
Not only are these French hens beautiful to behold but, with their temperament, winter hardiness and flock-friendly behaviors, Salmon Faverolles (both singular and plural end in an ‘s’) are the perfect breed for the beginning chicken owner. They are available for purchase through many major hatcheries.