Samui Wining & Dining
Foie Gone?

With controversy about foie gras on the rise, could this fine dining staple soon become a thing of the past?

 

17Rich, smooth and creamy, foie gras is a favourite item on fine dining menus the world over. It adds a certain je ne sais quoi, something that no other ingredient can mimic – although rest assured that many chefs have tried. Made from duck or goose liver, foie gras can be served in it’s natural form, or be puréed into a smooth pâté.

    In its original form foie gras is popular served atop a fillet steak, in an indulgent dish called tournedos rossini, often garnished with equally decadent black truffle shavings and drizzled in a Madeira demi-glacé. To make pâté the livers are combined with other ingredients, including herbs and cognac, to form a spreadable paste.

      But foie gras is pretty controversial these days, due to the method of force-feeding called gavage, utilized in order to fatten the birds’ livers to an unnatural size. Shock and horror comes to the faces of many who bear witness to this procedure, which involves sticking a metal tube down a bird’s throat for copious amounts of grain to be funnelled down it. This takes place between two and four times a day depending on the bird and farm, to ensure that the liver is fully engorged, i.e. at its most tasty. Animal rights activists ardently oppose gavage, and numerous campaigns have fought to outlaw it, gaining quite a public following in the process.

      Why not just let them eat a normal amount? Well, unfortunately, foie gras’ oh-so-tasty flavour and buttery texture is due to this abnormally high fat content. So integral is this aspect to the nature of the dish, the French word ‘foie gras’ actually translates directly to English as ‘fatty liver’. Without this procedure the liver is darker in colour, firmer and tastes entirely different.

       Naturally occurring engorged livers in poultry are not totally unheard of, but they are hard to come by – birds don’t generally overeat for the fun of it. So whilst fat wild birds aren’t the norm, they do exist. Now and again a game hunter will come across one and relish their luck, savouring its rich deliciousness with absolute delight. But it doesn’t happen that often.

       Celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, created a provocative documentary, in 2007, whereby he defended the consumption of, and process behind, foie gras. He began by outlining his opinion on the matter in no uncertain terms: “I happen to think that foie gras is one of the most delicious things on earth, and one of the ten most important flavours in gastronomy… A few twisted, angry people want to take your foie gras away… In short, they think foie gras is bad, and the people who raise it, sell it and cook it are evil. Not so I say.” And whilst his stance is fairly left field, he does proceed to make some convincing arguments.

      Bourdain began by interviewing a veterinarian, who outlined some simple biological differences between birds and mammals. He stated that while humans have a gag reflex to stop them inhaling something into their windpipe, birds do not because they breath through a hole in the centre of the tongue. This means that the bird is in no way choking when a tube is down their throat. Bourdain added, perhaps less tastefully, that in fact, “you see worse on the pay per view channel, and that’s people.” Another argument was that the tube doesn’t actually hurt the animal when it is inserted for feeding, because they have a thick protective lining in their throat. And they finished off with a nice bit of imagery about how the birds actually have a great quality of life, perhaps even a better one than their wild-roaming cousins.

      One Spanish foie gras producer, Pateria de Sousa, has come up with a way to create a similar-tasting liver, but without gavage. Described by some as “exquisite”, this foie (note the absence of ‘gras’) is created by feeding geese a sumptuous spread of figs, acorns, lupine beans and olives in autumn. Why autumn? Because that’s the time of year that geese instinctively gorge in preparation for a southern migration. This method is quite clever really, although it does limit production volume and year-round availability, seeing as the geese have to be slaughtered while their liver is still fat – immediately after their last supper, if you like. The livers are also not quite as big as those from geese that have been force-fed.

      The Pateria de Sousa foie actually won in a blind taste test against natural foie gras, which says a lot about the flavour that can be attained through the type of food it’s fed – although it does still lack in the fat content and size departments. Unfortunately, so limited is the supply, you can only get your hands on their coveted foie once a year during the annual post-autumn culling. It’s crucial therefore that you order in advance.

      But those die-hard fans for whom nothing but the fattiest, most buttery foie gras will do, there’s no substitute for the real thing. One thing’s for sure: if it remains legal then people who like it will keep on eating it. And even if it does get outlawed, there’s no law that’ll stop foie gras fiends from getting their hands on these luscious livers.

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Christina Wylie


 


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