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Photo by Lorenzo Vecchia
Ethical foie gras
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Photo by Lorenzo Vecchia
Ethical foie gras home 2
Foie gras is probably one of the most controversial things that we, as human beings, consume. Short of starting to eat each other, in fact, fewer things could cause more outrage.
Well, let’s face it, force feeding any animal by ramming a steel funnel into its beak and pouring in the corn—a process termed gavage in French—doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? And yet, the process is crucial to the silken textured liver we have come to revere and revile in equal measure. Indeed, if gavage is not involved, the French do not recognise it as foie gras at all, and connoisseurs argue that the birds actually enjoy it once they get used to it. Hmm.
The practice of force-feeding geese or duck to harvest a ‘fat liver’ dates back to ancient Egypt, and was certainly done by the Romans too. There is even a school of thought that argues the technique came to Spain via the Sephardic Jews before it reached France, which makes the story that follows all the more delicious.
French foie gras is certainly the most celebrated, and it’s probably fair to say that the French are the most passionate about it, while the Japanese are also big fans. But chefs elsewhere, and especially in the States, are increasingly dropping it from their menus. In Chicago, it’s been banned altogether, and York, in England, is threatening to follow suit. A restaurant in Cambridge, England recently took it off its menu, after attacks by animal rights organisations.
Both goose and duck liver can be used in the making of foie gras; the key is in getting the poor blighter to eat twice its body weight in food every day. Duck, in fact, is a better bet for intensive farming and accounts for 90 percent of foie gras on the market today, with most of that coming from Eastern Europe or Israel. However, because you can’t intensively farm goose, it’s generally considered to be superior.
Enter Eduardo de Sousa from Badajoz in Extremadura, who has a company called La Patería de Sousa, which has been making award-winning Iberian pork pâtés and duck terrines that are 100-percent natural and free-range since 1812. His latest venture into ethical foie gras—Foie Gras de Ganso Ibérico—treats geese in much the same way as his neighbours in Huelva make pata negra jamón: with patience, love and a diet that, frankly, I wouldn’t mind eating.
De Sousa opts for goose for his foie because they are naturally greedy and so they’ll happily keep eating as long as you keep feeding them. This begs the question: why the funnels in the first place? De Sousa’s geese live on a diet of figs, acorns and olives that results in a spectacularly silky, smooth and flavourful pâté. They are ready for slaughter, he said, when their bellies drag on the floor.
In nature, geese naturally fatten up around the time that they would migrate, between Christmas and February, and de Sousa follows the seasons accordingly. The livers never reach the size of their French brothers, and the French are unlikely to recognise it as ‘real’ foie anytime soon, but they did give de Sousa’s foie the prestigious ‘Coup de Coeur a la Innovación’ at a Paris International Food Salon recently.
It was a somewhat controversial decision for Marie-Pierre Pé, the general secretary of the Comité Profesional Francés de Productores de Foie Gras, who commented afterward that de Sousa’s product could not be called foie gras, but should be sold under the appellation of mousse de foie.
The bottom line is, de Sousa’s geese seem a fairly happy bunch, compared to say Kobe cattle, which are kept in often quite horrendous conditions, European battery farmed chicken or, indeed, any other mass produced meat. The liver may not be as ‘fat’ as those of French geese, nor perhaps as silky, but there’s an awful lot to be said for knowing the food on your plate hasn’t suffered too much to get there. A 90-gramme can of Foie Gras de Ganso Ibérico costs €23 and is available from the gourmet food store at El Cortes Inglés.
Much about foie gras is assumed, exaggerated and sensationalised. While not all farms are created equal ethically, in the case of foie gras the end product itself is so valuable that the majority of producers treat their stock like golden geese.
In France, an ethical charter, to which most professionals subscribe, has been drawn up to regulate animal welfare so that it is in line with consumer expectations.
Preferred species for the production of foie gras are Mulard duck and Landes goose. The birds are free to roam at will until ‘fattening’ starts, when the bird is about 12 weeks old. This process lasts for just under two weeks in the case of a duck, and for just under three for geese, which are bigger.
It takes place two to three times a day; a mixture of water and crushed maize imbibed using a tube designed to reflect the bird’s oesophagus called an embuc. The process lasts approximately 10 seconds. It is true that most breeders do massage the animal beforehand to relax it. In most cases the slaughter of the bird is by electrocution, which is the same as for chickens.
Ongoing research and development into the consequences that gavage has on the remaining life of an animal that is being raised for food suggests a respectful and responsible industry. Moreover the strong disapproval that foie gras production attracts points to a general lack of understanding among the dining public of what happens to many animals, particularly mass-produced ones, before they reach our plates.
RECIPE: Higado con Oloroso (serves 6-8 as a tapa)
If the thought of foie is still too much to stomach, this traditionally Spanish recipe is a good introduction to these offally delights.
Ask the butcher to prepare and clean the liver for you.
Cut two thick slices of calf or lamb’s liver (about 300g) into thin strips. You can also use whole chicken livers. Rinse well and pat dry. Season well with salt and pepper.
In a frying pan, heat three tablespoons of olive oil and gently fry one finely sliced sweet Spanish onion until soft and golden. Add 50g
of toasted pine nuts, a thinly sliced clove of
garlic and a handful of raisins, and sauté until the raisins are swollen. Remove the mix from the pan and set aside.
Add another splash of olive oil to the pan, get it really hot and flash fry the liver so that it’s nicely seared on one side. Turn the liver over, add the onion mix and 100ml of Oloroso sherry. Sizzle for a minute or two.
Pile a handful of watercress or rocket leaves onto toast, top with the slivers of liver and drizzle over the onions and sherry. Serve at once.