We made an easy drive from Geneva it takes no more than 1h20 to reach Vonnas, a small village surrounding the activities of George Blanc. For those of you who are not familiar with George Blanc, you are probably familiar with the Poulet de Bresse, the most carefully guarded embyros.
George Blanc is amongst the few free-standing three Michelin chefs of his generation and he has had his 3 stars since 1981. Today visitors from all over the globe visit this establishment in anticipation of stepping back in time, and you can well imagine what I mean because his family has operated as an inn, since 1872.
After three generations of female chefs with Georges Blanc being first male chef at the helm.Georges Blanc took over from his mother in 1968 who was passed control by Georges Blanc’s legendary grandmother Elisa Gervais, referred to as ‘La Mère Blanc’. She was awarded her first Michelin star in 1929, and the second in 1931, and the rest was up to George Blanc, who had a good head start.
Undoubtedly George Blanc grew up with a classical French training with his kitchen based on the very essence of François Pierre de la Varenne’s kitchen. Not much was very modern before he departed from France to become a flight attendant, and later discovered himself as a chef adding some new dishes.
However, I can’t say he adopted the popular style of nouvelle cuisine or assimilated using lightness and clarity of flavour as you would have found in the south of France, or in the kitchen of Paul Bocuse. Georges Blanc continued in his tradition blending tastes of the region using those essential products found in the old-fashioned kitchens of France, and butter and cream were no exception.
Butter in America in the late 1970’s was going through its own transition, and studies showed butter as deadly, but this didn’t stop the French consuming it by the kilo. In America it was almost banned and replaced with poisonous Margarine until the Americans realized that processed foods are far worse and the saturated fats in butter are not as bad as they thought.
In his luxury village just under five hectares you can discover his village that is more like a gastronomical town. There you can choose between his bistro, serving easy French faire, or test your eating skills at his 3 star restaurant. When we arrived to the main building we were escorted to the restaurant lounge. Passing the open kitchen enclosed behind glass on one side of the corridor, and the other side is a bright river moss pond.
We hadn’t been there in over 20 years, but I do recall seeing the kitchen glistening with cooper pots and pans hanging. Now a days the kitchen seems more sombre, and much less glamorous. But that’s just a past memory and it shouldn’t change your mind about travelling there.
The pre-drink before being shown to the table, it’s here you sip champagne in style and watch the menu as they serve a small amuse bouche. This is the standard practice of Georges Blanc and in most French restaurants.
The experience begins as we enter the dinning room, it’s a holiday weekend and the restaurant is busy as usual with a mix of foreigners and French. This is one of those restaurants where you’ll find plenty of French celebrating to the grandeur of George Blanc.
The difficulty here is to choose what to eat, and in Bresse its all about the poulet and no doubt we are here to taste the local chicken. It has been almost twenty years since I had been back and after a winter of a ban in Japan on European birds, we were starved of the profound Bresse chicken.
The menu is undoubtedly classical but does have a small twist of modernity in the details. I can only imagine how the kitchen at Georges Blanc respects the “old recipes” and how difficult it is to effect change. While Georges Blanc’s son is in the kitchen, he is still a member of the ranks, and the chef hierarchy is complex. For those of you who are not familiar with French bureaucracy, it is one of those systems that is comparable to some of the worst European unions.
Now the Bresse chicken, so we see the menu and ask for the bird en croûtee which means cooked in a crust of bread. The maitre says, “Monsieur this will take too long and must be pre-ordered” so our choices are limited to the lunch menu. Unless we stay for dinner, a thought that crosses our minds but who can eat cream for lunch and dinner without the consequences of feeling heavy.
The highlight of our lunch was just being there with my wife and son, and after the trying several entrées such as the pigeon, lamb for two and the Poulet de Bresse. The luxury of table cut meats is something that helps pulse your appetite, or make you feel a sense of anticipation as the sauce is poured over top and the maitre says, “enjoy Monsieur”. The formality of fine dinning always gives me a food rush and I can’t help getting excited.
The frog legs were sublime and served with a green sauce, they were fabulous but I couldn’t help thinking of the time I visited Bernard Loiseau and they told me the frogs came from Yugoslavia. I thought they were French I said, but I was wrong, and I never dare to ask again.
Aside, every year the French nibble away at 4,000 tonnes of frogs’ legs! But this dish was superb, une embrouillade de grenouilles «rana esculenta» à l’oseille du jardin et artichaut « camus »……the green sauce is made from sorrel and is delicious.
The story of the poulet de Bresse begins in 1591 when the bird was first mentioned in the town registers of Bourg-en-Bresse. Henry IV, having stopped off at Bresse following an accident with his carriage, tasted the bird’s meat and demanded its inclusion on his courtly menu.
The birds regime is strict to say the least and endure 35 days on eating grassy pastures supplemented by local corns and wheat, drinking some skimmed milk for periods ranging from 9-20+ weeks depending on their size and age. Intentionally given insufficient feed they work hard pecking and scratching for insects, worms and snails. In Japan the chicken eat oyster shells and here snails. But don’t be surprised becasue the power of the chicken’s beak is immense and they fling and crush the hardest of materials.
Jidori Chicken: https://mesubim.com/2016/12/08/jidori-chicken/
The standards of Poulet de Bresse are certainly strict and each chicken must have a minimum of ten square meters of space with a single flock of not more than five-hundred. But the embryo of these birds is as rare as the vines of Romanee-Conti.
The only time I heard of embryo being shared outside this very strict appellation was a story told to me by a well-known chef. The King of Thailand had been given some embryo but the incubation didn’t work out so they had to try to try again by sending staff to fetch and carry them back to Thailand.
The life of chickens, as the last part of their life is spent more inside than outside enjoying the luxury of life in the most beautiful countryside. They are then “finished” in a épinette, a cage in a darkened shed, where they are intensively fed on maize and milk to be fattened. In the past it was common to spay and or castrate chickens to ensure meat quality, but today these AOP poularde are fattened up with a focus on making them more meaty.
My Bresse Tokyo: https://mesubim.com/2016/11/07/poulet-de-bresse-2/
In the end we had no choice but to order the Pâté en croûte Poulet De Bresse and waited until dinner to enjoy it, a spectacular cooking, hand carved and served at the table, l’emblématique poularde de bresse AOP* cuite entière en croûte de sel. This is a technique is excellent and helps maintain the chickens moisture.
The end result is all about the glory of the Bresse and the savoury flavours and dense rich cream added to make it a Pièce de résistance. But let’s not forget the blue lobster, cooked in butter for 5 mins at 55°C and served with a Jura sauce – wow to the L’éclaté de homard bleu au velours de vin jaune and ravioles végétales à l’ail noir et cannelloni arlequin coraillé.
Finally the dessert was a strawberry fantasy delight with fraise des bois – it was excellent and we all chipped in to finish it after a very filling meal.
Place du Marché
01540 Vonnas, France
+33 4 74 50 90 90