The Red Label Bird with Gold Medal Flavor

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer, 2009)

I knew the name pertained to chickens, but what kind of a bird was La Belle Rouge? I gathered it was a beautiful red chicken, but what else? I called Don Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to find out.

“It’s not a breed, it’s a protocol,” Don explained, leaving me baffled until I discovered that it’s not la belle, but label, as in label.  Label Rouge. Red Label. Don confessed that he had experienced the same confusion, hearing label as la belle. But now we know: it’s a brand, not a bird. A sign, like a blue ribbon or gold medal, that suggests one can expect excellence, in this case a very good chicken. Not merely an advertising gimmick, the quality is real. And Label Rouge chickens are not something imported from France, they’re now here in New Mexico. Thanks to Tom Delehanty of Pollo Real, we can now experience what savvy French shoppers have known for the past forty years, that chicken can really taste like, well, chicken should taste, and it’s nothing like what usually passes for chicken in this country. 

The whole idea of grazing chickens as a production system began in France in the l960s when some visionary farmers, frustrated by the poor quality of post-war industrialized chicken and poor economics of farming put together a pastured-based system that would not only produce better tasting birds, but would produce better income for farmers and reinvigorate rural communities.  The program, called Label Rouge has been successful in accomplishing its various goal of producing a superior tasting bird reminiscent of the farmyard birds so many people had grown up with. Excellent flavor is a hallmark of the program’s success. Regular taste-tests are conducted to make sure that any participant’s birds are of such high quality that they are, in the program’s words, “vividly distinguishable” from conventionally raised chickens.

Their superior flavor is gained by putting a great number of protocols in place, the most important one having to do with the genetics of the birds. Label Rouge uses slow-growing birds that take three months to reach maturity in contrast to the six weeks allotted for the industrial Cornish cross breed. These hybrids birds, bred from “rustic” stock, are big, hearty chickens that are innately well suited to life Ray Ban outlet outdoors.  Tellingly, two of the four breeds used in the red label program are called “rangers” because they tend to range far and wide for good things to eat.  Being longer lived and kept outdoors except at night results in chicken that not only has good flavor, but also has a firm texture.

Of course many things must be in place to achieve high quality besides the breed, and that’s where a long list of protocols and practices come into play.  For example, the birds are given non-medicated feed, never fed any animal products or growth stimulants or other inappropriate additives. They are allowed a minimum life span of 12 weeks, and cannot be subjected to a journey of more than two hours or 64 miles to a processing plant. Their beaks are not removed nor are their toes trimmed.  Whether fenced or not, the chickens are raised in open air – truly in the out of doors – not just given a patch of grass to walk onto. One picture I’ve seen shows the birds ranging in an unfenced forest. The chickens are housed at night, but the buildings are limited as to the number of birds that can inhabit them, and there can be only 4 buildings per farm.  In between flocks, the farm area must be rested for at least three weeks, which is good for the health of the farm.

The list of rules goes on regarding weight, stock density, feed rations and so forth, in great detail. Judgment as to how well the standards are met is given by a third party, but, in spite of the strictness of the program’s standards, members tend to surpass them, not unlike those organic farmers here who grow to a higher standard than that allowed by the USDA, except that these standards are higher to begin with. I don’t want to bring bad news, but our industrial natural and organic chicken, the Rosies and the Rockys, are raised pretty much like other factory-farmed birds. The birds are pushed through their life cycle in six short weeks, which is hard on them; their legs, for example, don’t develop well. They’re also debeaked and clipped, they’re kept in crowded conditions and that so-called Occhiali Da sole Ray Ban outlet access to the outdoors happens only in the last week of their life. By then they have no interest in going out-of doors because they don’t know what it is. While it’s not so hard for a restaurant to claim that its chicken is organic, if it’s industrial organic, you may not find it much more appealing as eating a regular, cheaper supermarket chicken.

The protocols demanded by the Red Label program result in healthy, well-developed good tasting birds. As you would expect, they cost more than industrial birds, but that hasn’t kept Label Rouge from being a forty-year plus success. Today it commands 30% of the poultry market in France, despite that the cost to the customer is considerably higher. The French are, after all, known to value quality and taste more than Americans do, but a lot of us care about these things too, and are willing to pay the higher price for high quality and simply enjoy it less often.

Tom Delehanty and his wife, Tracey, of Pollo Real, have been feeding northern New Mexico good, organic, truly pastured chicken for the past ten years. They started raising the industry’s standard bird, the Cornish cross.

“Increasingly,” Tom explains, ”we’ve found problems with the birds. The eggs come contaminated with ecoli and septisemia, but the company won’t tell us that, or provide us with a test, so I have to take my chicks in to have them tested for disease and contamination, which is especially important for us since we don’t use the antibiotics that are part and parcel of large scale industrial poultry. This isn’t the case in Europe. The French chickens are tested by the breeders before they’re sent out; they’re far more rigorous in their standards, so we feel much better about their quality.”

Tom also points out that compared to the giants of the chicken industry, Pollo Real is far too small to be heard let alone catered to, so essentially, it’s not a situation that can improve. While Pollo Real’s grazing methods, organic feed, and better care have resulted, in excellent chicken, Tom, who comes from generations of Wisconsin chicken farmers and has a feel for the old barnyard breeds, has longed to be doing something with more interesting breeds of birds. I asked if he was interested in raising old American varieties, such as those watched over by the American Livestock Conservancy Board.

“They’re great birds,” Tom says, ” but far too slow growing to make sense commercially. They take even more months longer to mature than the French birds.”

So it turns out that the rustic hybrids in the Label Rouge program fit his needs far better than old breeds.  As for their flavor, that was confirmed when Tom and Tracey attended Terra Madre in Italy, the meeting of 5000 small scale food producers from 132 countries put on by Slow Food International.  There they were able to taste some Red Label bird that had been brought to the gigantic food fair, Salone del Gusto, by some French poultry farmers.

“They kept giving us these little pieces,” Tom recalls, “and they tasted like a good yard bird. We really liked it.”

Eventually a breeder came here via France, England and Canada and started raising the hybrid chickens – Poulet Nu, a reddish brown bird with a naked neck, the Gourmet Black, “which looks a lot like a Bard Rock,” Tom says, and two others, the Bronze and Gray Rangers, vigorous foragers that like to roam far for their food. I asked Tom what it was like working with new breeds of birds after so many years with the Cornish crosses.

“They’re beautiful!” He enthused.  “Their colors are just gorgeous and they have these long legs and handsome heads. They stand a lot taller and they’re much more active than the other birds. You’ll never see them park themselves by the feed. They go right out into the yard and graze. They need less protein than other birds, but even so, they grow pretty fast, and with those longer legs, you get more muscle.”  Which means better texture.

Fast growing or not, Tom follows the French rules, raising the chickens for 12 weeks, which is partly what give them better flavor – and greater size. A six-pound bird makes a magnificent Sunday dinner.

To find out whether there really was a difference in taste, I roasted the regular bird and the Red Label bird side by side. I just rubbed them with salt, put them in a searing hot cast-iron skillet then roasted them at 475’F, turning 3 times in all.  I carved each bird and served the three others who didn’t know which was which.  While carving, I could hardly stop tasting the Red Label bird, it was so good, and the experience was the same for my tasters. Two of them commented on the utter deliciousness and firm texture of the French bird. The third taster, my husband, doesn’t much like chicken in the first place, and accordingly, he identified the French birds saying they were too “chickeny.”  But then, that’s just the point – they really are chickens, and they do have their own, real flavor.  The taste like chicken can and should!

Next week at the farmers’ market I asked other people if they had tried Pollo Real’s French chickens and those who had, raved. 

“Incredible flavor!” enthused one. 

 “They were so moist,” recalled another.

 “Fantastic!” exclaimed a third, while a fourth mentioned that the meat was darker and juicier. Interestingly, there are pretty much the same kinds of comments that have been made about the heritage turkeys Tom raises, which are also rustic breeds: they’re juicier, have darker meat, firmer texture, more flavor and tend to be more elongated and less ball-like in shape.

With so much enthusiasm from Tom and customers for the new birds, I had to ask Tom what the challengers were for him when it comes to raising them.

“There aren’t any, really,” he said. “In fact, they’re a joy.”

The way Tom sees it, “We’re creating a culture of food, and by sharing our food and what we know, hopefully we can change the direction of industrial organic to food that comes from the heart and soul.  In the end, cheap food is cheap.  It devalues everything and makes us, as a people, incredibly unrealistic.”

The beautiful French chickens aren’t cheap, but they have great value. You’ll know when you cook one, that this is doing chicken right.

2 comments to The Red Label Bird with Gold Medal Flavor

  • Tom Fightmaster

    When I lived in Albuquerque some years ago I went to the Santa Fe Farmers market. On that day I bought a chicken from Pollo Real and took it home and roasted it in my brand new Romertopf ceramic roasting pan! My girlfriend and I loved the taste and the texture. It was a chicken the way a chicken was meant to be!! I have never had to stop eating chicken , here in Utah! Everything is a Cornish Cross. Boring as hell. I keep looking for that chicken once more. Guess I will have to raise my own…HA! Thanks Pollo Real..

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