Anyone for foie gras? A fat lot I care
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