Dear Readers, when we get to ‘Three French Hens’ the thoughts of the singers are turning to dinner, and it’s no surprise that in some versions of the song, it’s ‘Three Fat Hens’ rather than French ones. But let’s stick with the French fowl. The Latin name for the domestic chicken is Gallus gallus, the Roman name for France was Gaul and one of the symbols of France is the rooster, so it seems that the bird has been associated with France in the British mind for generations. The Bresse chicken (pictured above) is seen as ‘the’ French breed, as it has blue legs, a white body and a red comb, the three colours of the French flag.
Even today French chickens are seen as being extremely desirable eating – Michelin chefs and Waitrose turn to Bresse hens when they want to impress. The first recorded reference to the breed was in 1591, and as the Twelve Days of Chrismas as a song seems to have originated in the North of England in around 1700, this could well be ‘our’ bird. The gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) referred to the breed as ‘the Queen of poultry, the poultry of Kings’, so I suspect that Three French Hens would have been a most suitable gift for day three, a sign of no expense spared and of the abundance that the whole song seems to celebrate.
The chicken has gone, in my lifetime, from being a treat once or twice a year to being the most ubiquitous, cheap meat. This has come at a terrible price for most of the birds: chickens were the first animals to be intensively reared, and I don’t want to dampen your Christmas cheer with tales of what that entails. However, I well remember watching the chickens in Cameroon – they roamed the village and the chimpanzee sanctuary that I was working in, and it gave me a chance to observe what they were like as birds. We would scatter a few breadcrumbs after breakfast in the morning, and one of the cockerels would find the food and then utter a few small calls to his ‘ladies’. He would then stand by proudly while they pecked everything up, having done his duty as provider. On another occasion, a hen was menaced by a snake and I was amazed to see all the other hens piling in to chase the snake away. When the cockerel realised what was going on he galloped across to join the affray. The variety of personalities amongst this small group of animals was so interesting – if you’ve had a chance to observe chickens (maybe you’ve had a smallholding, or are keeping chickens for their eggs) do share your stories!
Of course, the chickens in the village were sometimes eaten on high days and holidays – however, one of the women would grab a chicken by the legs and cut its throat in a matter of seconds. If I was a chicken I’d clearly rather not have my throat cut at all, but if I was destined for the pot, I’d much rather have lived out my days pottering around with my flock than stuck in a cage the size of a tabloid newspaper.
And as a special Christmas present to all of us, have a listen to this. If this doesn’t get you lindy-hopping around the kitchen I don’t know what will.
Here are three pictures of French breeds of domestic animal. Can you match the photo to the name?
a) Baudet du Poitou
c) Bleue du Nord