I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when we pulled up outside Jean Luc and Amelie's little farm. Foie gras is one of those delicacies that insights a bit of an ethical furore. To be frank, I'm not certain what I think of it. From a purely gastronomic point of view, I find it very interesting (and delicious), but I am aware that the process by which it is made is not exactly pleasant for the birds.
I don't want to put forward an argument for or against foie gras here, but I would like to share what we learned from our visit to the farm, as it helped us to make a more informed decision about what it was we were buying and eating.
Firstly comes the question, in case some of you aren't sure, what exactly is this foie gras?
Foie gras is the fattened liver of a goose or duck. Goose foie gras is still available, but in France today it's mostly duck foie gras that is produced and consumed, for its richer, more complex flavour. There are strict rules that must be adhered to in order for the livers to be classified as bona fide foie gras. Livers that are too heavy or fatty, or not fatty enough don't make the grade, and instead are mixed together and emulsified to make something called 'bloc de foie gras', which is smoother and more buttery, but with slightly less subtlety. Livers that meet all the criteria can be sold raw, to prepare at home, or seasoned, cooked and jarred to eat with crusty bread and good company. These are known as ‘foie gras entier’, but, confusingly, buying a foie gras entier doesn’t mean you’re getting the entire liver, it could be a piece of liver.
Clear as mud? Good.
There are four stages to the production of foie gras. Firstly comes the elevage, or raising of the ducks. At Jean-Luc and Amelie’s farm, the ducklings are taken in at a very young age, and allowed to roam in large enclosures for fourteen weeks until they’re ready for the next stage.
Next comes the controversial bit. The ‘gavage’ or force feeding. The ducks are fed a large quantity of grain twice a day, every day for 15 days, to swell and engorge their livers before slaughtering. Foie gras gets a lot of bad press for making the birds ill during this process – rather like having cirrhosis forced upon a human. It was interesting to learn from Amelie that this is not actually the case. The ducks would, in the wild, eat an increased amount of food to fatten themselves up before migration, and this fat would all be stored around the liver. The swelling of the liver is also apparently completely reversible, so should you have a change of heart mid gavage and decide to let Mr Quack into the wild, as free as the wind, then his liver would soon return to normal size. So, however unnatural the process of gavage may be, at least the result is a natural one.
Once the ducks have completed their 15 days of gavage, they’re sent off to slaughter, then the livers are cooked, seasoned and prepared for selling.
We bought a small jar of foie gras entier, and, at Amelie’s suggestion, a small bottle of Sauternes to go with it. It was decadent and gorgeous. The foie gras was rich and meaty and had that metallic tang you’d expect from liver, with a real hit of sweetness behind it. The Sauternes was golden and honied and complemented the foie gras perfectly.
The main thing I learned from visiting Les Delices d’Amelie is that foie gras should be a special occasion food. It’s costly to produce, both financially and ethically.
If you do decide to treat yourself, search out the foie gras that is made by smaller producers, rather than the large scale industrial stuff. Just like battery farmed versus free range poultry, the huge industrial factories keep their birds in tiny cages during gavage, and feed the birds cornflour, which is cut with antibiotics and god knows what else. The smaller, traditional producers use ‘parcs’ during gavage, which, while not exactly palatial, allow the birds to walk about and stretch their wings. They are also fed on corn, which is more nutritious and more palatable for them.
It might take longer to find, or cost a bit more, but the traditionally produced foie gras is worth it – both for the depth of flavour in the end product, and the relative cleanliness of your conscience when buying it.