Saturday 14 January 2017

Eating Foie Gras

Every year we prepare our own foie gras. Every year I mention it on the blog and every year a friend who thinks foie gras should be banned contacts me with information as to why she won't be eating foie gras any time soon.

Separating the two lobes of the liver.

Foie gras is a victim of its own legendary tastiness and luxury status. As disposable incomes in the 20th century increased, demand for the finer things of life increased. Products like foie gras had been produced in small scale operations in the south-west of France. It was mainly eaten at Christmas time, and even for the comfortably off was considered a seasonal treat. But even in France the idea that consumers wanted access to luxury products, wide choice and all year availability took hold. Large factory farms began proliferating, producing duck foie gras (because geese don't adapt well to industrial farming). These factory farms were devoted to producing maximum quantity so they could price the foie gras enticingly and encourage year round purchasing and the idea that most households could afford it. Taste, quality, good husbandry practices, and bird welfare took a back seat.

Fairly quickly certain consumers noticed. Already opposed to the gavage (force-feeding) that is necessary for the production of foie gras, the added cruelties of mass production caused a groundswell of opposition to foie gras. Things like beak clipping (to stop birds fighting or plucking their own feathers out), throwing unwanted female ducklings alive into incinerators or grinders (only the larger male ducks are used for foie gras and magret), restrictive cages with no solid floors or possibility of natural behaviour such as puddling or grooming, and being kept in a shed with no natural light throughout the ducks' life were increasingly unacceptable to an increasingly urban consumer base.

Veins removed, seasoned and just about to put the lobes back together.

Every few years there is a scandal associated with the industry. The most recent was an exposé of practices in 2013 at a very large producer who supplied high end and well known restaurants. This producer found their contracts cancelled.

It is worth remembering that if you are eating magret (fat duck breast) or often even cuisse de canard (duck leg) it is a 'by product' of foie gras production. This may be considered a good thing if you are into whole animal eating and not wasting food, but a bad thing if you are fundamentally opposed to foie gras. It's a bit like the connection between drinking milk and eating veal -- if you do one you should be morally bound to do the other, and likewise, if you are opposed to one, you must eschew the other.

We are very lucky in Preuilly. We can indulge in very good quality foie gras produced locally, by farmers who are happy to show visitors around and who have always answered my questions. They looked slightly surprised when I asked them about beak clipping. I could see them thinking 'That old chestnut!' and the response was that it has been illegal for some time and they would be very surprised if anyone practiced it these days. Likewise, the business of throwing female ducklings alive into grinders. Why would the breeders do that, they say, when they can be sold on to finishers, who will fatten them up and sell them as caneton (young duck for roasting)? They are well aware of the ethical issues associated with the production of foie gras, and whilst I am a valued customer who they are happy to talk to openly about the industry, they do not feel able to allow me to take photographs of the farm. They feel that is a security risk.

Home made foie gras in terrines ready to eat.

I would hesitate to eat foie gras if I didn't know the producer, and feel that it is important to acknowledge that some producers work hard at the husbandry and ethical issues. I can understand why people choose not to eat foie gras. I know lots of people who don't eat it just because they are squeamish about offal. I know two people in France who don't eat foie gras for ethical reasons. One of them, who is French, admits that she loves steak and foie gras, but became vegetarian because of conditions on industrial farms.

So what does this mythical dish taste like? Why is it so seductive? To be honest I don't quite know (but then, I don't find bacon the most irresistible food on Earth either). I like foie gras as a seasonal treat, but I don't want to eat it all the time. A large part of its appeal for us is the annual workshop where we get together with friends to prepare it for Christmas. It's sweet like a lot of offal is, with an intensely savoury overtone. Texturally it is rather like eating salted butter. It's melt-in-the-mouth and smooth, which is why eating it on toast, with a bit of grape, fig or onion jam is my favorite way. A slice as a garnish on a steak is excellent too.

Several European countries have outlawed the production of foie gras (eg Germany, the United Kingdom). The EU has written guidelines which state that no animal should be fed in such a way as to cause distress or physiological harm and their official view is that although there have been very few properly conducted scientific studies of the issue, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the gavage is detrimental to the ducks' health. France has circumvented this by making a law which declares foie gras to be part of France's cultural and gastronomic heritage and as such, is protected. Bullfighting in Spain is protected under similar legislation, and frankly, I think the days of the gavage, cages and bullfighting are numbered. Foie gras I think will continue, as the industry will be forced to reinvent itself, to use non-forced feeding methods or disappear. It will be like rosé veal taking over from milk veal, and older consumers will grumble but everyone will get used to it and animal welfare will win in the end.


Ken Broadhurst said...

Or the male calves will be slaughtered, ground up, and used as dog food... Funny that I posted about veal today.

That show on Campagnes TV, which you said you watched, featured somebody saying the goose foie gras comes only from ganders, not from females. And that goose liver has a gamier taste than duck liver, which makes up 80% of the foie gras market now. Both male and female ducks can be force-fed to produce foie gras. Milder taste and cross-gender (!) production are two factors make duck foie gras a more attractive option for consumers and producers.

In the U.S. at least, chickens are probably much more mistreated than the ducks raised for foie gras etc. Maybe we should all start eating insects.

Jean said...

We enjoy foie gras occasionally, not too often as it's a bit too rich for us to eat regularly.
I try not to think about the way it's produced, knowing that it can only be done with a certain amount of distress for the ducks. I'm sure that all meat and meat products could be produced in a way that causes no suffering to the animals but people choose not to do that, which is one of the great failings of the human race I think. Unfortunately the will for change just isn't there when there are mouths to feed and profits to be made.

Susan said...

I'll have to re-watch the programme. I did notice that one of the producers was raising both male and females, but I wasn't sure the females were producing foie gras or just meat. I don't think it's very common to use females. Certainly the producer I buy from doesn't. Also I remember the discussion in the programme about which was nicer -- goose or duck -- and goose got the vote I thought. I've never had goose foie gras, but I have read that it is less gamey and more delicately flavoured. That made sense to me, as that is exactly what a French connisseur would be looking for in a premium product and would account for goose being more highly prized.

GaynorB said...

Foie gras isn't for me and I wouldn't ever buy it or knowingly choose it from a restaurant menu. However, if I was served it at a dinner party I would eat it so as not to offend someone who has generously served it as a treat. If it was served amongst a selection of foods for aperos I would avoid it, again without making it obvious that I was doing this.
I hesitate to verbalise why foie gras isn't for me at the risk of seeming a hypocrite given some of my other food choices! Perhaps it comes down to not liking the taste that much combined with the knowledge of the production process. I concur with your last few sentences.

Aussie in France said...

Good presentation, Susan. I'm surprised you didn't mention that ducks naturally overeat when migrating and that the Romans ate naturally fatted foie gras. Some farms play music while the ducks are being force fed.

Ken Broadhurst said...

You are right, the woman on the show who was leading the tasting said that the foie gras d'oie has a more delicate taste, but people doing the tasting said they preferred duck. And the show said that 96% of the foie gras market is duck, with very little goose. Wonder if that is just a question of price, or why so little goose foie gras is produced.

Ken Broadhurst said...

I also think that the force-feeding mimics a natural behavior in migratory ducks and geese -- that is, they gorge themselves before beginning the migration and their liver fattens up. I don't believe the ducks or geese suffer if the force-feeding is done the right way.

People seem to be worried by the treatment of certain animals and birds but not others. In the U.S. at least, people don't want to eat rabbits because you wouldn't want to make such a cute creature suffer. Same with calves, for veal. Or venison, because... well... Bambi. And then there's the question of snails and frogs' legs, not to mention liver, kidneys, etc.

Susan said...

I think the dominance of duck is economics. They are easier to manage, grow quicker, and the consumer is no longer as educated as they once were (in terms of what good foie gras should taste like), so the product is acceptable.

Susan said...

I didn't mention the business of migratory fowl gorging themselves because I think it is disingenous. The ducks used in foie gras production are not migratory. They are a domesticated hybrid of two domesticated species, one of which is not migratory in the wild and the other is only sometimes. Maybe labradors would be a better bet, given the recent studies that they don't have an off switch when it comes to eating.

I totally agree that the general population is quite selective when it comes to what is acceptable to what species. You see it all the time with issues of protection for wild species. The charismatic megafauna win every time over flies and beetles. Frustratingly, horses get protection no matter how inappropriate their presence.

Susan said...

I forgot to mention -- there was an entomophagy event in Tours the other day! I didn't go, and can't say I have much interest in eating insects. As a sustainably produced food for poultry and fish though, I think insect farming has a lot going for it.

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