Why did the chicken, duck and goose cross the road? To get to Bonticou Ducks
It started as a quintessential Hudson Valley day. Picture this. Hugging the narrow curves of the winding Stone Ridge Mountains, I arrived at an orchard to meet a farmer. This is not just any farmer. Her name is Polly Gregor of Bonticou Ducks. You know that you’re headed somewhere special when the directions sound like this: “Enter the orchard, go through the iron gate, drive past the apple trees, look to your right and you’ll see me”.
Luckily, I heard geese honking as I pulled up, a beck and call that assured I reached the right location. Polly and I worked together a few years ago when I taste tested some of her heritage-bred chickens, so I was delighted to see the pasture on this sunny September day.
What makes Bonticou Ducks so special?
Polly and her husband, Brian Guillorn, have raised heritage-breed poultry since 2016 at High Falls and Stone Ridge orchards. The birds are free range! That means they live in a natural habitat of pasture, woodlands, ponds and orchards. The fowl are free to hunt insects, sun bathe and play in the ponds. They are, however, confined at night to protect from predators. But other than that, they are free to roam the farm as they please.
Polly and Brian aren’t conventional farmers raising “meat” chickens and “egg layers”. They raise heritage breeds, because at the end of the day, taste is most important. They don’t buy day-old chicks and ducklings, either. Instead, they hatch most birds on-site in antique redwood incubators. The birds aren’t crowded in mobile coops, like most commercial-raised chickens.
Parent birds also raise their own young at Bonticou— a nice surprise in the farming industry. Parents raising their own chicks and ducklings isn’t something you see everyday. Normally, goslings are raised in feed lots, away from the parents. Bonticou Ducks is a family farm that raises birds the way they are meant to be raised, with extreme dedication and attention to detail.
The challenges and rewards of being a bird farmer
As second-career farmers with backgrounds in science and civil litigation, Polly and Brian are uniquely skilled at bird husbandry, which is quite scientific. However, being second-career farmers comes with challenges. Farming is generational, with knowledge passed down like a family heirloom. With that said, it all has to start with someone in the family deciding to become a farmer.
Polly admits that being a new farmer can be a disadvantage at times, but there are benefits as well. There are no outdated rules to follow. It also leaves room for novelty and ingenuity in the farming process. They learn firsthand which farming methods work and which don’t, continually evolving to hone their craft in a way that best suits the land and the game birds they raise.
Polly approaches raising fowl like a research project. That means comparing chicken breeds based on flavor, temperament and cold-hardiness. In 2016, they raised 15 different chicken breeds in order to compare and contrast the birds’ attributes. From this research, they learned which breeds to raise in the future. Two breeds stood out for great flavor. These were the American Bresse and Bonticou chickens.
American Bresse chickens
Most chefs are familiar with the French Bresse or blue-footed chicken. These are among the most famous chickens in the world. They even have a special designation known as A.O.C., or “appellation d’origine contrôlée”. This French label is used to classify products whose authenticity and originality is linked to the geographic region a food or drink comes from, as well as the unique way it’s made.
Bonticou Ducks raises a breed known as American Bresse chicken. This is essentially the same as the French Bresse, but since they aren’t raised in France, they cannot be classified as French Bresse. Therefore, they are called American Bresse. Bonticou raises some of the best poultry in the Hudson Valley with the same “Label Rouge” standards of the French A.O.C. We are very lucky!
Polly and Brian chose American Bresse as their specialty heritage breed for 2017. These birds are tasty, well marbled and retain juiciness when cooked. Unlike commercial chickens, the fat in heritage birds raised on pastureland does not lie in a thick layer under the chicken’s skin. Rather, the fat is infused throughout the flesh, creating moist and flavorful meat. Chefs like to call this marbling.
In 2016, Bonticou Ducks purchased American Bresse breeding stock from Greenfire Farms and two other U.S. farms., carefully selected from different blood lines. Like wine makers, Polly and Brian aspired to create the perfect American Bresse chicken from these breeding stocks. In 2017, new blood lines from France arrived in the U.S., so Polly and Brian were quick to add them to their initial breeding stock. Bonticou’s final product is a chicken with rich flavor, juiciness and the highest level of quality.
Polly and Brian also developed a signature Bonticou Chicken. Named to honor the farm, these are the only Bonticou chickens raised for meat in the U.S. As with everything at Bonticou Ducks, quality comes first. They chose this bird for its deep, rich, moist chicken flavor and naturally higher marbling than most other chickens raised for meat.
Polly and Brian take pride in raising their Bonticou Chickens to Label Rouge standards. For example, the birds’ diet is supplemented only with grains soaked in local raw milk — rather than ordinary chicken feed. Their mission is to have the best pastured-raised, heritage-breed chickens for the table.
Bonticou Ducks raise many duck varieties, but their Duclair and Silver Appleyard ducks are prized for eating. Polly raises other duck breeds, such as Cayuga, Muscovy, and Rouen, for their beauty, future breeding possibilities, and home-cooked meals.
These pure-white ducks are a French breed with rich, complex flavors. The original birds from France were reimagined in the U.S. by Robert Rosenthal of Stone Church Farm in Rifton, NY and John Metzer of Metzer Farms in Gonzales, CA. Though they resemble Pekin duck in color, they are smaller and slower growing, which makes a tastier duck. In 2017, Polly and Brian purchased Duclair breeding stock from John Metzer, now raising them in the woodlands of High Falls, NY.
Silver Appleyard ducks
Developed in England by Reginald Appleyard, this dual-purpose duck breed boasts very flavorful meat. Silver Appleyard are known for a higher fat content than Duclair ducks, but they have a milder flavor. Yet Silver Appleyard ducks have a more complex flavor than the Pekin, and less fat. They are a great addition to the dinner table, and pair well with my Five-spice Roasted Duck Breast with Duck Fat Tater Tots, Crab Apple & Candied Ginger Chutney recipe.
Why buy heritage-bred, pasture-raised ducks from Bonticou Ducks?
Grocery store duck that is labeled “Long Island Ducklings” comes from commercial duck farms in Long Island. These birds are raised very different than the way Bonticou raises their ducks in the Hudson Valley (and quite frankly, completely different than how ducks are raised in nature). These are Pekin ducks, originally from China, that are selected for a rapid growth rate, large breasts, high fat content and mild flavor.
Like commercial chickens, the ducks are raised inside large buildings on metal or plastic mesh floors. They drink water from small metal nipples originally developed for chickens. The ducks are harvested in just seven weeks. Any later, and the feathers become much harder to remove. Now, I don’t know about you, but I prefer buying duck meat for flavor, not for ease of feather removal. Yes, the ducks are well maintained, fed, clean and dry. But there is something unnatural about the process of raising ducks this way. Ducks are best raised on pasture, living alongside the woods, ponds, bugs, and, most importantly, their mothers — not cooped inside a building, getting fat.
At Bonticou, duck mothers raise their young. The ducks live outside from the time they are born. Mothers protect featherless ducklings from the rain and cold by huddling them beneath her body and wings. Ducklings hatched in incubators away from their mothers need protection from cold or wet weather until they grow feathers at about five to six weeks old. If you’re doing the math, that means commercially raised ducks aren’t enjoying their lives…and they only have one week more to live once until they are fully feathered and harvested. Unfortunately, these ducks won’t need their feathers for long before they are packaged for sale at grocery stores.
Ducks are water fowl. They love the water, which helps keep them clean and healthy! Polly and Brian pride themselves on giving ducks access to the simple pleasures of Mother Nature. Bonticou takes a slower approach. Their heritage-breed ducks are harvested at 10 to 17 weeks. That makes a huge difference in meat quality. Bonticou ducks have more flavor complexity since they are allowed to rummage in the wild. The meat takes on subtle nuances of the pastureland. Terroir, if you will.
Bonticou Ducks are also leaner, since they don’t fatten the ducks rapidly with a diet of commercial duck feed, which lacks nutrients found in the wild. So, if you know someone that says, “I don’t like duck because it’s too fatty”, steer them in the direction of Polly and Brian of Bonticou Ducks.
When I arrived to meet Polly at Stone Ridge Orchard that September day, she was tending four flocks of geese that are pastured raised among the orchard’s apple trees. Twice per week, Polly moves the fence so the geese always have new territory to explore, which geese love to do.
I recall as a child — and this has nothing to do with the geese at Bonticou — that I was attacked (more like ran down) by a Canadian goose at a park. My guess is that I came across a gosling and mother without knowing it. Yes, wild geese are intense. But in the hands of Polly, they are very manageable and well-tended. As I roamed the orchard, I sensed the geese at Bonticou Ducks were definitely honking at me and not Polly. Call it a hunch. But assuming I’m right, it’s for good reason. Geese are smart birds. They know and trust Polly.
Breeds of geese
Polly and Brian chose to raise two geese breeds, Embden and Toulouse. These breeds are raised for complex flavor, meatiness and fat content. Bonticou Ducks is currently working on crossbreeding geese to develop the tastiest goose for your dinner table. If you are looking for one of the best poultry farms in Hudson Valley for cooking goose, this is a good place to start.
Prized for their size and gamey flavor, Embden geese are a German breed. Polly studied Embden geese in 2016. She noticed they are great grazers, and great parents. While they are good egg layers, they are not the best at brooding. Instead, Polly incubates the Embden geese eggs and raises the goslings for one to two weeks in brooders. When the goslings return to pasture, the parents begin protecting the goslings within days. In 2017, Bonticou Ducks introduced new breeding stock from John Metzer in California. They bred with the ganders at Stone Ridge Orchards, improving the quality of the Embden geese at Bonticou farms.
When I learned that Polly and Brian raise Toulouse Geese, I got very excited. As a chef trained in French kitchens, I always heard about the famous Toulouse Goose, used for making delicious Toulouse sausage. Here was my chance to finally see one in person. I was giddy! These large gray geese are strikingly beautiful. They reminded me of the goose in Charlotte’s Web when I first saw them.
In 2017, Bonticou Ducks purchased a flock of Toulouse geese from a farm in Massachusetts. Slightly smaller and higher in fat than the Embden, they offer a great meaty flavor that works well for holiday dinners.
Bonticou Ducks cross breeds the Embden and Toulouse to get the best of both worlds: fat and flavor. In 2018, they set up three family flocks, each with one to two ganders and up to eight geese. This yielded a new goose breed, called “Embden/Toulouse F1 hybrids”.
Cooking with game birds
Most commercial farms harvest geese at 9 to 15 weeks. Meanwhile, the pasture-raised geese at Bonticou take longer to grow, with harvesting at 20 to 32 weeks. This allows the birds to develop a deeper, more complex flavor profile that is great for the dinner table. Like certain fruits and vegetables, goose is best enjoyed seasonally. Geese are a wonderful fall and winter ingredient. As the chilly weather settles in on the Hudson Valley, consider adding goose from Bonticou Ducks to your plate. The flavor won’t disappoint you. The rest of the year, Bonticou happily satisfies your hunger for free-range chicken, and duck as well.