Bird of Paradise

Fine French fowl alight in North Carolina's Piedmont

Poulet Rouge chicken
Ingalls Photography

I always thought chicken was a snooze. Then poultryman Ron Joyce set me up with a long-legged beaut by the fancy name of Poulet Rouge Fermier du Piedmont. At first I scoffed at the pretense. What kind of handle was that for a broiler from North Carolina?

But then I tasted it: succulent, firm flesh dripping with robust juices that tasted of, well, chicken. It was the opposite of the insipid, flabby birds we usually eat in the States.

Seven years ago Joyce, a second-generation Carolina producer, went in search of a superior chicken, reaching across the pond for his first batch of breeder eggs from France's lauded Label Rouge program. The government-sponsored initiative began after World War II with chicken farmers intent on preserving heritage-breed poulets fermiers, "farm chickens." It regulates labeling, enforcing strict standards for chicken breeding, feeding, and processing.

Joyce chose a breed called cou nu, or "naked neck," a tall, lean-breasted bird with an eponymous bald spot. He named his Carolina-raised variety Poulet Rouge for its rust-colored feathers and adopted French methods for raising it. At Joyce Farms, his cou nu live for 80 days, nearly twice as long as commodity chickens, which are bred for quick turnaround. Roomy indoor-outdoor digs allow them to exercise their muscles as they mature, metabolizing their fat, resulting in luscious, slightly gamey meat that is prized by chefs like Gavin Kaysen of Manhattan's Café Boulud. He loves the Poulet Rouge's thin, taut skin, which "cooks up crisp and firm, almost like pork belly."

How do the pros suggest cooking such a remarkable chicken? "Practice restraint," says Michael Schwartz, chef-owner of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, who panroasts his with just salt and pepper. He's right; these birds are so flavorful I might just pull out my favorite straightforward roast chicken recipe and serve them instead of turkey this Thanksgiving. Prices start at $16 for a fresh two-and-a-half- to three-pound broiler from joycefoods.com.