“Protecting the old ways, for me and for you”
– “The Village Green Preservation Society” (Raymond Douglas Davies, 1968)
A feature of French gastronomy which gives hope to retain its distinctiveness and honour is the restoration of local breeds and dishes based on them. One sees this occasionally in other countries as well. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust is an example in the U.K. But in France, the level of committment is nonpareil.
Examining Ninette Lyon’s charcuterie (cooked meat and sausage) selection 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 pâté de Houdan. We have seen how at least two brie cheeses she mentions, Melun and Coulommiers, still exist and are sold in Paris today, but what was or is Houdan and its pâté ?
There is a surprisingly rich history behind Ms. Lyon’s lapidary mention. 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 poultry in the 1800s and until WW I. The village gave its name to a breed of chicken that had many distinctive features, including five toes versus four for most breeds, and a striking butterfly comb.
Wikipedia, here, offers details of the Houdan chicken. The lineage is old and not fully understood, but the Dorking, an English variety also festooned with the rare five toes, is thought to be in the bloodline. In this regard, one might reflect that England ruled Houdan between the end of the Hundred Years War and 1475…
The meat was highly prized and said to resemble partridge or fine pigeon. North Americans might think of squab, which is young pigeon. The Houdan 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 illustration 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 has not been confined to this breed or even chicken as such. It is a feature of French northern cuisine in general – Amiens has one based on duck, but a similar dish is also known elsewhere in the Hexagone, sometimes for festivities. There has been a revival of interest in recent years in these pâtés, and chefs have introduced their versions in recherché restos. This 2012 report from Le Figaro gives good 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. A recently-established Confrérie is devoted specifically to the Houdan chicken and its pâté and has held two annual events to celebrate the history and keep it alive. Details can be viewed on its Facebook page which features numerous images of the rescued dish. This group is one of many in France that promote interest in traditional breeds, dishes, and beverages. Indeed one in Paris that is devoted to beer appreciation hosted an in-depth walking tour I attended last Tuesday of former Parisian brewing sites.
This level of involvement by the general populace – vs. simply professional circles such as food associations and chefs – testifies to the special relationship France has always had with the food and drink. No other country can claim, even today and despite the advances of foreign cuisine in France, 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 real Houdan flesh is used as so few of the birds remain and those which do are mainly for show purposes. At any rate the famous bird and old recipes for it are clearly inspiration for the dish.
In fact, the breed had disappeared completely from France in the 1960s but was re-introduced from breeding stock in the U.S. and Germany. Specimens were maintained there dating from 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 typical of France. In other countries, restaurants rush to offer the latest, usually foreign-inspired fad, and neglect so often their own culinary or agricultural history.
Ms. Lyon mentions poultry among other meats that might be used for pâté in Houdan. This is probably because meats were sometimes mixed for the dish as is characteristic often of pâté, but in any case the version based on chicken was once a culinary star in Isle de France and Paris. Writing in 1985, the influential Ms. Lyon thought fit to mention the tradition, something which probably 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 general type. If anyone makes it, you might try it with squab instead of chicken.
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.