“Protecting the old ways, for me and for you”
– “The Village Green Preservation Society” (Raymond Douglas Davies, 1968)
One of the features of French gastronomy which gives hope to retain its distinctiveness is the rescue of local breeds and dishes based on them. One sees it occasionally in other countries, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust is an example in the U.K., but there is a level of popular committment in France that is nonpareil.
Looking at Ninette Lyon’s listing of charcuterie (cooked meat and sausage) for Paris-Isle de France in her 1985 Le Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout), I decided to check on the fate of her pâté de Houdan. We have seen how at least two brie cheeses she mentioned, Melun and Coulommiers, still exist and are sold in Paris shops today, but what was/is Houdan and its pâté ?
There is a surprisingly rich history behind Ms. Lyon’s few words. Houdan is a locality west of Versailles in the Yvelines district of Isle de France, an hour’s drive from Paris. It was noted for its poultry market in the 1800s and until WW I. The village gave its name to a breed of chicken with many distinctive features, including its five toes versus four for most breeds, and its striking butterfly comb.
You can read in Wikipedia here details of the Houdan chicken. Its lineage is old and not fully understood, but the Dorking, an English variety also with the rare five toes, is thought to be part of the bloodline. In this regard, one might ponder that England ruled Houdan between the end of the Hundred Years War and 1475.
Its meat was highly prized and said to resemble partridge or fine pigeon. North Americans might think of squab, which is young pigeon. The breed was an aristocrat of the poultry family, as the poulet de Bresse is, and was formerly served at the Versailles and St. James courts. It was the subject of a detailed manual in 1874 by the Briton Charles Lee. (Read the introduction for a masterful exposition of Victorian gentlemanly tact).
The meat was used to make the pâté after a local charcutier devised the dish in 1850. To be sure, pâté in a pastry crust was not confined to this type of meat. It is a feature of northern cuisine in general – Amiens has one based on duck – but is known elsewhere in the Hexagone, sometimes as a festive dish. There has been a revival of interest in recent years in such pâtés, and chefs have introduced their versions in recherché restos. This 2012 report from Le Figaro gives the background.
English cold pies based on hot water pastry are well-known, or used to be, and bear more than a passing resemblance to the French pâté en croute. Melton Mowbray pork pie is a classic example. Once again we see how English and French influences compare, contrast, and intermingle, in food, languages, and other aspects of culture to this day.
Gastronomic associations have strived in recent years to save the Houdan breed and promote the once-famous pâté made from it. A recent Confrérie devoted specifically to the Houdan chicken and pâté has held two annual events to celebrate this history and keep it alive. Details can be viewed on its Facebook page with numerous images of the rescued dish. This association is one of many in France which promote interest in traditional foods, dishes, and beverages – indeed one in Paris devoted to beer appreciation hosted the in-depth tour I attended last Tuesday of former Parisian brewing sites.
This level of involvement by the general populace – not necessarily professionals of the food industry – testifies to the special relationship France has always had and still has with the world of food and drink. No other country can claim, even today and despite the advances made by foreign dishes in Paris, such lettres de noblesse.
A gastronomic restaurant in Houdan, “La Poularde de Houdan”, features the pâté, you can see it on the menu here. It’s not clear to me if the real Houdan meat is used as so few of the birds are left and are used mainly for show purposes, but at any rate the famous bird and old recipes are the inspiration. In fact, it seems the breed disappeared completely from France by the 1960s but it was re-introduced from breeding stock sourced in the U.S. and Germany where specimens had been maintained since the breed’s renown in the 1800s.
That a stylish country restaurant would place an old local dish on its menu shows a respect for tradition – and an interest in simple good eating – that is typically French. In other countries, restaurants rush to offer the latest, usually foreign-inspired fad, neglecting so often their own culinary or agricultural history.
Ms. Lyon mentioned poultry among other meats used for pâté in Houdan. This is probably because the meats were sometimes mixed as is characteristic often of pâté, but in any case the version based on chicken was a culinary star at one time in Isle de France and Paris. Writing in 1985, the influential Ms. Lyon thought fit to mention the tradition, something which perhaps contributed to its restoration in recent years.
This online culinary guide proposes an authentic formula for the dish which uses multiple meats including foie gras. More detailed recipes are available online for the dish or its general type. If anyone makes it – try it with squab instead of chicken – let me know you make out.
Note re images: The first image above was sourced at loulouchanel, a French historical images site, here. The second was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on Houdan chicken linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.