The Crèvecoeur Fowl

by

Jeannette Beranger
The Livestock Conservancy

The Crèvecoeur chicken is among the oldest of the standard-bred fowls of France and the longest known French breed in the United Kingdom. The breed gets its name from the village of Crèvecoeur en Auge in Normandy, France. "Crève Coeur" translates literally as "broken heart" in the romantic sense. Local history sites the origin of the name stems from the land in this region being less fertile than was hoped by farmers moving in to the area and thus breaking the hearts of the peasants. Little is known of the breeds origins other than they were developed in Normandy and existed there for a very long time. By the twelfth century the Crvecur was known as a source of pride by the Lord of Crèvecoeur-en-Auge. Historic tenant contracts indicated that to pay their rent on their farm, farmers had to provide two finished Crèvecoeur capons to the landowner each year. This clearly shows the value of this breed to the locals! By the eighteenth century, Crèvecoeur capon was a preferred meat of the upper middle class in Paris. More than 150,000 were produced for this market annually. French poultry author Charles Jacque wrote in his 1858 book, Le Poulailler, "This admirable race produces certainly the most excellent fowls that appear in the markets of France. Its bones are even lighter than those of the Houdan; its flesh is fine, short, whiter, and it takes more easily to the fattening process. The chickens are of an unheard-of precocity; they are ready to fattening when they have attained two months and a half or three months, and for eating fifteen days after."

The Crèvecoeur had reached America by 1852 (Livestock of the Farm, 1916) at a time when French breeds were becoming the rage in the country. Further imports occurred around the beginning of the 1870's from the Jardin d'Acclimation in Paris. (American Stock Journal, 1870) In France they were still quite popular at the time. One notable distinction for the breed occurred in 1889 when there were two sets of awards offered for poultry at the first Exhibition Universelle (World's Fair) held in Paris. One was reserved for the Crèvecoeur and the other for all the other chicken breeds at the exposition!

The Crèvecoeur remained popular up until the early 20th century in France. In 1909 poultry author Willis Grant Johnson wrote "When staying in St. Servan, Dinan, and St. Malo a few years since, I noticed that the Crèvecoeur was the principal fowl offered for sale in the market, where they were mostly bought alive, and if unsold carried home, to possibly reappear on a future day." He also mentions in regards to capons that "In Paris the finest of the "Crèves" realize as much as from twenty to twenty-five franc each, while from three to five dollars is not an uncommon price in New York. The French capon, when really good, is in its way the perfection of poultry." (The Poultry Book, 1909) To put things in perspective, in today's currency that price is equivalent to $100-$125 per bird!

Things changed dramatically for the Crèvecoeur when in 1940 the German army reached Normandy during WWII. The soldiers wished to eat as the middle-class French did so military bursars were tasked with collecting as many Crèvecoeur chickens as possible for their tables. Within two years, nearly all of the birds were eaten leaving only a scant few hidden away by dedicated farmers. Today they are still critically endangered but new interest is emerging in France and in the U.S. to bring this historic breed back to the culinary world.

The breed was developed principally for the quality of its flesh. Crèvecoeur chickens have small, fine bones and the proportion of meat to offal (edible internal organs) is quite high. Their skin is white and their legs are dark leaden blue. The breast meat is noted for being fine, short, and very white while the leg meat is observed to be very dark and almost duck-like in color. Crvecur chickens grow slowly, reaching mature size in about 10-12 months although modern producers observe that the roosters seem to reach their full glory in appearance at two years of age. The breed fattens readily and was a French favorite to "gaver" or stuff - an old traditional practice of making birds eat more by inserting a tube into their mouths much like is done with geese and ducks to produce fois gras. Another historic fattening method involved confinement and intermittent light cycles throughout the day. They were fed a specially blended wet mash including whey and malted oats along with other items (kept a local secret by Norman producers) to develop a fine carcass for the table.

In the U.S. they are found only to be solid black in color but in France there is a blue variety and a white variety. On the black birds a beautiful beetle green sheen can be seen on the crests, hackles, and tail feathers of the roosters. In the 19th century long time British poultry breeder, Mr. W. Blinkhorn, wrote of the breed "Crèvecoeurs have been described as black or black and white variegated. This variegation, sometimes white and sometimes golden, is most noticeable in the crest, and after that in the hackles and saddles, but I have never seen it in other parts of the birds. I scarcely remember a bird that did not show it more or less the second year, and as they grow older it increases. I have seen good combs of both varieties two-horned and antlered and think both are common to the breed; but the former are more general and I think preferable." (The Book of Poultry, 1886) Of the color in very young birds Willis Grant Johnson writes "in color they are black, with white on the breast; and in their first feathering they not unfrequently have white in the wings and tail, which generally is moulted out in the nest, and they become a soft, clean, uniform black." (The Poultry Book, 1909)

Crèvecoeur chickens should have crests and beards of moderate size, compact, well-proportioned bodies, and short legs. Traditionally their crests and beards, being smaller, did not restrict their vision as the crests do on the Polish chicken breed but the show ring has encouraged more profuse crests in recent decades. They have "V" combs but "leaf" combs are known to occur occasionally within the breed. In movement they are quiet and deliberate. The breed stands confinement well, appearing quite content. Crèvecoeur chickens are moderate layers of large white eggs, and were noted by both English and American poultry men as being rather delicate in constitution and prone to catch colds in damp conditions although modern breeders find them to be very robust. Crèvecoeur chickens are easily reared on any moderately dry soils.

The Crèvecoeur chicken was recognized by the American Poultry Association and admitted in 1874. Males should weigh 8 lbs and females weigh 6.5 lbs. as adults but many in the U.S. have become much smaller over time. Attention should be given to returning the breed to standard weight.


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