Going to have a dozen of these little rascals running around at home soon. Little bit of history of this rare Breton bird.
Coucou de Rennes
In the markets around Brittany, north-west France, in the early 1900’s, the Coucou de Rennes was a regular sight. Famed for its great tasting meat, bountiful eggs, the tendency to cover eggs willingly, and with cocks growing up to 7lb, it was a perfect bird for the lower income families prevalent at the time. They were also known as a very hardy bird, adapting well to all climactic conditions, not seeming to suffer at all with the predominantly damp Breton weather. According to Jean-Paul Cillard, a technician at the Ecomusée de Rennes, it was the trade routes with the far east that had brought the ancestors of the Coucou to Brittany. The boats left port with the stores full of live animals and birds, and any that survived the trip were sold portside by the crew once they arrived in Lorient or St. Malo. They bred with local birds and new species were formed.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the line was started by one of the most eminent aviculturalists in France, Dr Edmond Ramé. Dr Ramé was the son of wealthy property owners in Rennes, and thus had the resources to devote his life to creating and improving lines of fowl, all done in his manor house in Nouvoitou, not far from Rennes. In 1900 the Doctor first exhibited his new line at the international show in Paris and the bird was deemed to be a success. In 1903 the bird was shown again, and it appeared on the stand as winner of the general agricultural exhibition in Paris and given the title “Best French Race.” On 31st March 1914 the standards for the race were laid down. It was said at the time that it was so popular that “there wasn’t a henhouse in Brittany that didn’t have a few Coucou’s in it.”
An article written in the French magazine “Le Poulailler” (the henhouse) in 1938 gives the following description: “The Coucou de Rennes is an elegant farm chicken, of a size slightly larger than average. Its plumage is predominantly grey blue, with all of the feathers marked by regular black and white bands. The body is solid, with broad shoulders. The wings are well tucked into the body, and the abundant tail is pleasing to the eye. It has a long back, with a slight incline from neck to tail. The crest is simple and of average size. The standard demands that both cocks and hens are of the same colour, however genetically the cock is often of a lighter hue.”
The other particularity of the cock bird is the almost non-existant spur, which rarely protrudes more than 1cm from the leg.
With the advent of industry specialisation and the beginnings of battery farming, slow growing birds became much less prolific during the 1940’s and 1950’s, with at least twenty regional species dying out altogether. Taking around 130 days to reach maturity, the Coucou was one of the breeds that suffered. It was thought to be extinct by the 1980’s but after some detective work by the Ecomusee de Rennes a few solitary birds were found in 1988 in and around Rennes, including two that were located in a farm, owned by a retired farmer, that was being sold for the building of a new residential area, and were destined for the pot. In 1989 all of the birds found were taken to the museum and a breeding programme started to re-introduce the bird to the homes and farms of Brittany.
With the help of the local agricultural council, a dozen farmers started their re-introduction program in 19997. Their goal was to raise 30,000 birds a year, although conditions to be respected were stringent. They had to be raised free range, using traditional feeds and having at least twice the minimum recommended space (12m2) per bird.
The race was (and still is) particularly appreciated for its meat. In blind taste tests in France, the Coucou always does well, and more and more restaurants in Rennes are beginning to serve it again on the menu. The slow growth rate gives it a firm but tender texture, with a slight taste of walnut. The cream coloured skin crisps well, and doesn’t separate from the skin during cooking. Another plus point for the Coucou is that it remains a good layer for many years, much longer than most commercially available birds today. As a further sign of the success of the re-introduction, the French Post Office (La Poste) celebrated the re-emergence of the Coucou de Rennes in June 2012, with a stamp of the bird in a new series entitled “The France that I love.”
The group CNEVRB (which translated stands for the national association for the raising of Breton fowl) has done a fantastic job in raising the numbers of this bird with a specific targeted breeding programme, so much so that the bird is now once again being seen on market stalls in and around Rennes and slightly further afield, and regular meetings are held by the body to discuss the future growth plans for the species. Their eventual aim is to see the Coucou de Rennes once again as prevalent as it was at the turn of the 19th century.