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Published: Saturday December 7, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 7, 2013 MYT 7:50:16 AM

Controversial delicacy

Expensive, divisive, delicious : Jean-Hugues Gautier (right, back to camera) provides samples of duck and goose foie gras to shoppers at the Saturday open air market in Sarlat, located in the heart of the French foie gras country. — MCT

Expensive, divisive, delicious : Jean-Hugues Gautier (right, back to camera) provides samples of duck and goose foie gras to shoppers at the Saturday open air market in Sarlat, located in the heart of the French foie gras country. — MCT

Foie gras remains a favourite despite criticism of the force-feeding method used to produce it.

IT’S a Saturday morning in this medieval French city in the heart of the Dordogne region – market day – and merchants have stacked tables in Sarlat’s cobblestoned square with pricey delicacies.

Pungent dark truffles. Wicker baskets filled with freshly-picked mushrooms. Black walnuts suspended in jars of honey like insects in amber. Wheels of aromatic cheeses as big and thick as automobile tires.

But it’s the shiny cans arranged in pyramids that draw many of the grocery buyers and gastronomes. Inside the unassuming containers adorned with labels showing pictures of ducks and geese are fattened livers.

Ah, foie gras – expensive, controversial, delicious.

This area in south-western France is the heart of foie gras country.

Foie gras means “fat liver” in French. It also means a sizable chunk of the French agricultural economy. Foie gras is big business in France, which produces around 20,000 tonnes of processed goose and duck liver each year: three-quarters of the world’s foie gras, valued at more than a billion dollars.

Among the numerous foie gras sellers at a recent Saturday market was Jean-Hugues Gautier, who used a tiny knife to dispense duck and goose foie gras on small round pieces of toast to tourists and foie gras first-timers. A small 120g can of duck foie gras cost around US$14 (RM45) at Gautier’s Foie Gras Le Dom ’Oie stand. Duck foie gras has a more pungent taste, like wild game, compared with goose.

Why do people buy it? Aside from the unparalleled taste, Gautier says, “It’s unique, like Champagne or caviar,” as he makes change for a couple buying two large cans of duck foie gras.

Before foie gras ends up at markets and on plates at fine restaurants, it begins at farms in south-western France where large signs on the sides of winding roads feature drawings of geese and ducks.

At Denis and Nathalie Mazet’s Elevage du Bouyssou foie gras farm near Sarlat, hundreds of grey geese and ducks graze in pastures for several months before being force fed. The Mazets get their Toulouse geese chicks when they’re a day old.

They reach full size at four months living in the pastures on the Mazet farm, eating corn and drinking water.

“Here they eat all day long – a little bit,” says Nathalie Mazet, standing in one of the pastures filled with geese. “Then we feed three times a day – a lot.”

A normal goose liver weighs 85g to 113g. Geese grown for foie gras are force fed three times a day using a tube, called a gavage, and when they’re slaughtered and processed for food, the livers weigh almost 1kg. Force feeding is done the last 15 to 18 days of a goose’s life and 12 to 14 days for a duck.

Denis Mazet, whose family has farmed foie gras for generations, sits on a small bench inside a pen next to a large container filled with whole corn. He pulls each goose under his left arm and tilts its neck back and with his right hand he quickly and smoothly pushes the feeding tube down each bird’s throat. It takes six to eight seconds to feed each goose.

Without force feeding, geese would not eat as much corn and their livers would not grow as large, explains Nathalie. The Mazets raise and process 1,000 geese and 500 ducks each year at their farm, selling everything except the feet, head and intestines. Feathers are sold to a pillow manufacturer.

Animal rights groups have protested foie gras farms, saying the practice of force feeding is cruel and inhumane. While foie gras farmers contend it does not hurt the ducks to be force fed, critics counter by saying it causes liver damage and is uncomfortable for the birds.

Foie gras was banned for commercial sale in Chicago between 2006 and 2008, and last year the state of California barred the production and sale of foie gras. It’s illegal to sell foie gras in several countries, including Germany, Britain, Israel, Italy and Turkey.

FEATHER ETCH TOP OF PIX AND WRAP TEXT AROUND? Cans of duck confit are stacked in pyramids at one of the open air stalls during a Saturday market day in France where foie gras is a business worth billions of dollars. -- MCT
Cans of duck confit are stacked in pyramids at one of the open air stalls during a Saturday market day in France where foie gras is a business worth billions of dollars. — MCT

Foie gras farmers like Nathalie are aware of the criticism. They say their animals are grown to be eaten just like calves destined for veal cutlets or cattle fattened in large feed lots. But Nathalie says her animals are allowed to roam freely in pastures to ensure her flock remains healthy and are not injected with hormones and other chemicals.

“Usually the people who criticise don’t know anything about force feeding,” says Nathalie. “I live with my animals. It’s important to me that they have a good life.”

Force feeding animals isn’t new, and it wasn’t invented by the French. In fact, the practice dates back to at least 4,500 years ago, when ancient Egyptians fattened geese. A tomb in Egypt features a bas relief scene of people forcing grain down the throats of geese.

Geese and ducks are singled out for foie gras because their livers are larger than other fowl such as chickens and turkeys. Because geese and ducks migrate, they need the extra fat stored in their livers to help them travel long distances, says Ron Kean, a University of Wisconsin-Madison poultry expert.

Because foie gras is rich-tasting and pricey, it’s usually eaten in small quantities, commonly as an appetiser, although it can be served as a main course. Because it’s so fatty, it’s often served with sweet fruits such as figs, poached apples or stewed pears to balance the flavour, says Adam Siegel, executive chef of Milwaukee restaurants Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus.

“It’s one of those things where you either love it or you hate it,” says Patrick Murphy, chef de cuisine at Wisconsin French restaurant Le Reve Patisserie & Cafe.

Le Reve uses only duck foie gras, not goose, which it gets from a Minnesota farm, says Murphy, adding that it can be difficult to cook. “It’s a very expensive product. We obviously don’t want to waste it. We try for 100% yield,” says Murphy, who has worked at Le Reve five years. “If you put it in a pan and just crank it, it’s a lot like butter. It’ll just melt away. You need finesse.”

Lake Park Bistro serves a sautéed foie gras with prunes, port wine and brioche toast, as well as potted foie gras, which is cured, rolled in cheesecloth, poached in stock and then passed through a fine-mesh sieve before being placed in a small glass jar topped with rendered foie gras fat and chilled. It’s usually served with preserves and toast.

The menu at Bacchus features a seared piece of foie gras served with a honey crisp apple compote, brioche French toast, a sunny side up quail egg, bacon and Bourbon maple syrup as a sauce; the dish informally is known as the Breakfast of Champions.

Bacchus and Lake Park Bistro use only duck foie gras from a New York farm.

“If you’re searing it, you need to make sure that you have a nice hot pan so that you gain a decent amount of colour and so you can ensure that you don’t overcook it,” says Siegel, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef-Midwest in 2008 for his menu at Lake Park Bistro. “I like to sear pieces that are at least 1-inch thick so that I can cook to about medium rare, and so it is still a bit firm.”

Jason Van Auken at the American Club Resort in Kohler has come up with a unique way to use foie gras — in a cocktail of maple whiskey infused with duck liver. With a large clientele from the Chicago area, Van Auken noticed quite a few customers ordered foie gras or asked about the delicacy.

Even though the foie gras ban has been lifted, “there are still a lot of places in Chicago that shy away from it,” says Van Auken, wine director and mixologist for Immigrant Restaurant. “We knew if we put a cocktail together it wouldn’t be a big seller, but it would certainly pique interest.”

Van Auken spent two years, off and on, perfecting the recipe, which he unveiled at the Kohler Food and Wine Experience recently.

He starts by pan-searing foie gras and infusing the liver and some of the rendered fat with a Canadian maple whiskey for 24 to 48 hours. The liquid is strained through cheesecloth until clear. The cocktail consists of 1½ ounces of whiskey/foie gras infusion, half an ounce of Creme de Mure blackberry liquor and five dashes of walnut bitters.

“We almost treat it like a port because it’s concentrated and intense,” says Van Auken. “This is a very dessert style cocktail. If you’ve got a foie gras dish with blackberry or other berries, that does wonders for it as well.” – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Foie gras, Duck foie gras

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