VIDEO. These animals from Occitania to preserve 5/6: the black hen of Astarac Bigorre, the little Gascon girl with the air of a phoenix

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She almost disappeared. The black hen is now a 100% local sector, in the Gers and the Hautes-Pyrénées. The culmination of thirty years of genetic selection and preservation of the breed.

At Alexandre Rigade, the hens have a view of the gentle, verdant hillsides of Astarac. A few tens of meters separate the two outdoor enclosures, on the heights of Saint-Arailles, in the Gers. On one side, the pullets, on the other, the capons.

The young farmer has recently been raising black hens from Astarac-Bigorre. Originally a sheep breeder, he wanted to diversify his activity and opted for this 100% local sector. “She’s pretty, she’s friendly,” he smiles. It’s a small production, it doesn’t go through a thousand cooperatives. I like to help save and develop a local species. It allows you to rediscover breeding as it was practiced before. »

Whether male or female, these birds have all the characteristics of the Astarac-Bigorre black hen: small in size, with black feathers with pretty green reflections, a red crest and slate-coloured legs. In terms of character, the little Gascon is robust: she can’t stand being locked up, withstands temperature differences very well and remains wild. “She has retained her hunting reflexes: she is constantly wandering in the meadows, looking for grasshoppers or snails”, notes Jean-Paul Beuste, one of the most active defenders of the black hen.

Alexandre Rigade breeds black hens from Astarac-Bigorre in Saint-Arailles, in the Gers.
DDM – M. Haussy

But its main characteristic is its slow growth. With a minimum rearing period of 150 days (the average duration for label chickens is 80 days), this is an undeniable asset for its taste qualities. “It gives its flesh a lot of taste,” adds Jean-Paul Beuste. We find a chew in his flesh. I’m not saying she’s tough, but she’s firm. We have teeth, we use them to eat Gascon, it’s normal! We lost that way. »

An exceptional dish

Raised in the open air, fed with cereals and brought up respecting its natural growth rate: it is not surprising that the black hen of Astarac Bigorre is today considered a premium dish, offered on the best tables of Paris and Lyon, via those of the Gers, of course. The flagship product? The dry-plucked capon, tapered and swaddled in a cloth tinted with Pastel blue from Lectoure, an exceptional product, the price of which can exceed one hundred euros.

But its slow growth is also a constraint, in terms of time and cost, which almost saw it sacrificed on the altar of productivity in the 1980s. At the time of the industrialization of agriculture and the creation battery breeds, the Gascon hen, not profitable enough in the flesh, almost completely disappeared. In the same way as the black pork of Bigorre, considered too fatty. Its rebirth, it owes to Jean Amblard, professor at the Saint-Christophe college in Masseube.

At the end of the 1980s, this enthusiast identified the remaining individuals, sometimes in remote henhouses, where a few collectors kept them for the beauty of their feathers. He collected fertilized eggs and managed to determine five families. The poultry selection center of Béchannes, in the Ain, then took charge of the genetic selection, in order to gradually find the standards of the breed, from the weight of the hens to the color of their eggs, very light. A job that took many years.

The Gascon hen has black feathers and slate-coloured legs.

The Gascon hen has black feathers and slate-coloured legs.
DDM – M. Haussy

18,000 poultry sold each year

It was at this time that Jean-Paul Beuste discovered the existence of the black hen. However, he comes from a family of breeders for generations, in Lisle-de-Noé. “The first time I saw one, with its beautiful black feathers and a crest like that, I went wow! For me, until then, all the hens were brown. »
The first traces of the Gascon breed appeared in 1830. “It was the hen that had been present in our region for centuries. In no time, she almost disappeared. In a burst of common sense, we decided to restore it to its former glory,” he explains.

The first step was the creation of the association La poule gasconne, in 2003, then that of the SICA, the commercial structure, in 2015. This allows the sale of products: capons, pullets, pullets, but also canned . The opening of a hatchery managed by the sector, last year in Trie-sur-Baïse, was a culmination. Fertilized eggs in breeder-breeders are brought there to hatch. The chicks are then raised with other breeders, to be finally slaughtered in Vic-Fezensac. 100% local, we tell you.

“We want to be profitable to support our farmers and be efficient enough to encourage others to settle,” adds Jean-Paul Beuste. The Gers and the Hautes-Pyrénées now have about twenty breeders, including three breeders. 22,000 chicks come from the hatchery and nearly 18,000 poultry are sold each year. The goal is to reach 30,000 by 2024.

A process to obtain the AOP (Protected Designation of Origin) was initiated several years ago. Obtaining it would be a consecration for the players in the sector.

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