Foie gras remains a favourite despite criticism of the forcefeeding 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: threequarters 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 southwestern 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
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