In the lead up to the end-of-year season, one is constantly reminded to at least attempt a decent proportion of self-control in the inevitable festive indulgence. Excuse yourself early from those after-work drinks, one less party to attend (really?! picking friends are we?), politely decline those turkey leftovers.
Besides the wanton excesses, the media is also keen on carrying the obligatory story on foie gras. Yes, that lovely slab of goose or duck liver, slightly warmed with a tinge of grill colour, generously smeared over a teeny tiny crisp bread, then washed down with my Chateau dY’quem or Chateau Coutet.
This year’s versions have popped up over the past 3 days. Probably a little too late to have any significant impact on consumer decisions. But then again, I reckon that there’d be a couple of editors and media moguls who’d be looking forward to more than a little sliver of foie gras.
About a month ago, Anthony Peregrine writing for the Telegraph UK discussed the quintessential French culinary ingredients of Periguaux truffles and foie gras. In his column, he points out that it is his honest preference for the taste of pate over foie gras as the basis for his decision to shy away from the latter. This week, we have ‘Force-fed foie gras loses flavour in France’ from the Guardian. It refers to a poll conducted on behalf of a French animal protection group to which 47% of respondents indicated support for a ban on gavage (I’d love to read the precise wording of the questions though). Also, 29% cited ethical reasons for not purchasing foie gras. Excellent! I think those numbers actually suggest to us that if you improved the methods of producing foie gras, then one could potentially doubling their customer base!
Without getting into the argument of anthropomorphising the experience of the birds, articles in this vein have consistently failed to present both sides of the consumer experience and discuss the ‘ethical’ options. Yes, there are farms which practice ethical foie gras production. And by this I am specifically referring to free-choice food consumption by geese and ducks. There is no need for further debate on this aspect. This is a natural inclination for these birds, primarily because they are migratory species which are compelled to feed on as much as possible before autumn in preparation for their seasonal flights across incredible distances. Why do media articles attempt to either conduct lazy journalism or pander to animal rights agendas without striking a balance and presenting this side of the story?
So, here’s a bit of education with a link to one such ‘ethical’ producer, Sousa & Labourdette. This is a 200-year old farm currently operated by two men, located in Extremadura, Spain. This region might be better known to you as being famous for their wild acorn-foraging Iberian black pigs which are used to produce jamon iberico. The business operates on a once-a-season harvest and takes advantage of the natural habit of the migratory geese. You can watch a video of their website. All the animals are free-range, no enclosures and as close to ‘wild’ as you can get. The birds are naturally inclined to stay on the farm due to the plentiful supply of food. With a capacity to maintain 1000 birds, that annual production is understandably limited to 2000 jars. They are one of the biggest ethical producers in Europe, having certification from Spain’s National Association of Ethical Food Producers (ANPAE).
So why aren’t the French adopting this approach? Could it simply be put down to resistance to change and the stubborn adherence to traditional methods? The biggest factor would be the limitation to one single harvest per year. Would you risk loosing an entire year’s wage? It is also possible that considering the longer spells of warm weather owing to the Mediterranean climate of Extremadura, migratory flocks of geese tend to stay in the region for a longer period of time conducive for harvest. How can the French counter the seasonal changes in climate so as to retain enough birds for a profitable business? With so many non-trivial factors to consider, this is a tricky issue and one should not be so quick to fault the persistence of French methods.
Here’s an interested TED talk by Dan Barber (who has had the privilege of preparing foie gras for Barack Obama) discussing ‘The Foie Gras Parable’. He describes his visit to the Sousa & Labourdette farm, something that RSPCA have yet to do which is why they have yet to release an official comment on ‘ethical’ foie gras.
For the unadventurous, my advice is to stick with duck confit drenched in Bordeaux and black truffle sauce.