Any­one for foie gras? A fat lot I care

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Foie gras and truffles: the very words have a volup­tuous tim­bre, and their sea­sons are once again upon us. In the Dor­dogne, Périgueux’s Marché au Gras, one of France’s lead­ing foie gras mar­kets, has opened, as in Richerenches in the Vaucluse re­gion of Provence has the coun­try’s ma­jor truf­fle mar­ket

Thus, the twin pil­lars of fes­tive French win­ter din­ing are in place. From now on, one will only have to serve one or the other or, cue heav­enly cho­rus, both at a din­ner party to have French guests col­laps­ing into ec­stasy, as be­fore Courbet’s L’Orig­ine du monde or the com­plete works of Charles Trenet. The na­tion will yet again be ren­dered soft in the head by co­mestibles. It was, after all, not the most stupid of them, Alexan­dre Du­mas, who said that eat­ing truffles put him in touch with the divine. The in­sane sen­ti­ment gen­er­ates broad agree­ment through­out Gal­lic so­ci­ety. They’ll be pay­ing €900 (£710) a kilo for the damned things by Christ­mas.

In the past, I have, from the fringes, bought into all this, partly due to a de­sire not to up­set my host coun­try, but mainly be­cause I never gave it much thought. Peo­ple were rav­ing about foie gras or truffles, I said “yeah” and turned the con­ver­sa­tion in a more aca­demic di­rec­tion, to­wards, say, fail­ings in the laws of rugby gov­ern­ing loose mauls. In the spe­cific mat­ter of foie gras, I was also driven nuts by an­i­mal wel­farists who seemed to be not so much con­cerned about an­i­mals as fu­ri­ous with hu­mans. Fight­ing the force­feed­ing ( gav­age) of ducks and geese nec­es­sary to cre­ate foie gras ap­peared to be yet another outburst of self-right­eous hys­te­ria in a world that re­ally didn’t need much more.

By up­bring­ing and in­cli­na­tion, I am gen­er­ally on the side of farm­ers; should this have brought me into con­flict with Roger Moore, Vera Lynn, Ricky Ger­vais, the state of Cal­i­for­nia and other foie gras op­po­nents, well, so be it. A trip to south-west France didn’t change much. As you’ll know, this is the HQ of French (and there­fore world) pro­duc­tion of foie gras. Here is a duck-based cul­ture with mead­ows abound­ing in palmipeds doomed for their liv­ers.

I went to a fam­ily farm where they raised, then force-fed, then slaugh­tered and then pro­cessed ducks. Ar­ti­sanal was the word. It was all very neat, be-flow­ered and handy. I lis­tened. The farmer, a wel­com­ing fel­low in aged shorts, gave me

the usual stuff about foie gras: that force-feed­ing was only a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion of what ducks were pro­grammed to do any­way: build up fat in their liv­ers to sus­tain mi­gra­tion. There was ev­i­dence that the Egyp­tians had been at it 2,500 years ago (an ar­gu­ment which could jus­tify almost any­thing).

Fur­ther­more, birds such as ducks didn’t have a gag re­flex, so stick­ing tubes down their gul­lets didn’t trou­ble them. Had I not seen how they swal­lowed fish? Nor should we an­thro­po­mor­phise the birds. They weren’t small, wad­dling, web-footed hu­mans. They were ducks.

Then we went to see the force­feed­ing. I’d seen the process be­fore, at a more old-fash­ioned farm where a lady sat on a stool, took a duck be­tween her knees, put a fun­nel far down its throat and poured in boiled (there­fore soft­ened) corn, mas­sag­ing the bird’s neck all the while. This time, it was more me­chan­i­cal, with ducks force-fed in cages. It wasn’t a bu­colic sight – there will never be a chil­dren’s ti­tle “Miss Pene­lope Force-Feeds Flossy, Her Favourite Duck” – and the ducks didn’t look de­lighted. Then again, they never do. Or if they do, nei­ther I nor any­one else knows how to tell. “Is that a de­lighted duck?” is an unan­swer­able ques­tion. The thing is, they didn’t shy away dra­mat­i­cally ei­ther.

And, as the farmer pointed out, force-feed­ing lasted 20 seconds twice a day for the last fort­night of the duck’s life. Be­fore that, it had spent 15 weeks free-rang­ing. I came away think­ing foie gras ducks (90 per cent of French foie gras is duck) didn’t have sig­nif­i­cantly worse lives than other beasts. As a car­ni­vore, you have to ac­cept that few an­i­mals will be liv­ing peace­ably to re­tire­ment. I got on with my life.

Then I went for din­ner the other day, was served foie gras and had time to con­tem­plate it prop­erly, my im­me­di­ate com­pan­ions be­ing in­sen­si­ble to the loose maul laws. What had lain dor­mant at the back of my mind for years sud­denly came to the fore: that, de­spite fuss and fan­fares, foie gras is, in truth, pretty un­in­ter­est­ing. It’s got a silky, but­tery tex­ture all right, but very lit­tle that you would ac­tu­ally call “taste”. The onion pre­serve along­side was much more se­duc­tive. I had sort of known this about foie gras, with­out know­ing it, for a long time, as I had long sort of known that Miles Davis, Sal­man Rushdie and Joan Miró were never go­ing to add much to my life, be­fore I got around to con­fronting it con­sciously.

I turned to my com­pan­ion and said: “I think I pre­fer a coun­try pâté to this foie gras.” She looked at me as one looks at the in­sane, started talk­ing about Mozart, and a great friend­ship was nipped in the bud. Ad­mit­ting this foie gras state of af­fairs has, how­ever, light­ened my life. I would cer­tainly never ar­gue that peo­ple shouldn’t pro­duce, sell or eat foie gras, any more than I would cam­paign against ba­nanas just be­cause I don’t like them. What I will do is stop both­er­ing to eat the stuff, and per­haps take it down from num­ber 17 to num­ber 56 in the list of causes I need to de­fend.

The case of truffles is eas­ier to re­solve, there be­ing no dis­cernible cru­elty is­sues in­volved. I might there­fore say that I am a great fan of the idea of truffles. The search in the crisp au­tumn coun­try­side, with dog to hand (few peo­ple use pigs; they’re less man­age­able and eat the truf­fle them­selves); the se­cre­tive old peas­ants, berets clamped on heads, car­ry­ing bas­kets to mar­ket; the cash-only trans­ac­tions hon­our­ing a mil­len­nial tra­di­tion of screw­ing the tax au­thor­i­ties. It’s all pro­foundly pic­turesque, and ex­actly what one ex­pects of French rustics.

The snag is the truf­fle it­self. I have eaten truffles in many prepa­ra­tions, with scram­bled eggs, veni­son, sim­ple pasta and sim­pler spuds. And they’re good – they do cheer up a scram­bled egg – but they’re not what I’d call ex­quis­ite, not 750-quid-a-kilo ex­quis­ite. I’d have been just as happy if they’d been mush­rooms. I’ve men­tioned this oc­ca­sion­ally, and a few French peo­ple agree. “I’d never,” said one, “eat a lunch which had been found for me by a dog. Or a pig.” Most, though, cry impi­ety. “The truf­fle en­no­bles ev­ery­thing it touches,” says Clé­ment Bruno, the Em­peror of Truffles from Chez Bruno, in Lorgues. I don’t wish to ar­gue with him – an ebullient chap the size of an Alp. So we’ll agree to dif­fer, and I’ll find my fes­tive French food lux­ury else­where. Did any­one men­tion oys­ters?

For more of Le Ros­bif’s inim­itable in­sights into the highs and lows of Gal­lic life, go to tele­graph.co.uk/jour­nal­ists/ an­thony-pere­grine

Geese bred for foie gras in the Dor­dogne, above; and the fin­ished prod­uct, right, a whole goose liver, which An­thony Pere­grine finds flavour­less

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