Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life without Foie Gras? Non!

Back in 2003, some friends on their way back to Ireland from Provence, detoured across to the Ariège Pyrenees to visit us. Here, they enjoyed some locally produced Foie Gras and bought some to take back with them. Their family and friends tasted it at the Christmas revels and voila, orders began to arrive.

It gets bigger each year and in October or early November, in our house in the Couseran Hills, I pack it up & drive north to the Bordeaux area with the order and pass it over to my friends as they head north to take the ferry Ireland for the winter.

Here is a product so luxurious, so deluxe, that people in other countries consider to be exotic, a fabulous, once a year treat. But in the Grand Sud, Foie Gras is everywhere, a perfectly ordinary food. It appears on all the great occasions of course, but equally it can and does make an appearance at an everyday lunch. As I became immersed in French life, shopped and cooked using local produce, I fell into the French way of thinking about Foie Gras. Like the mountains, it’s just there.

In most of the farmhouses Foie Gras is made much as apple compote is. Life without it would be unimaginable. Nationally, it is considered a very important product and like so many foodstuffs ­­­- the French take these things very seriously - it is protected by law. Legislation designated Foie Gras as part of the officially protected, cultural and gastronomic patrimony of the country. France produces 83% of the world's Foie Gras and apparently eats more than 90% of it.

I place the large order for our friends with David Lemasson who, here in the department of Ariège Pyrénées, produces a superb range of hand-crafted, natural products, without conservatives or dyes. The Lemasson team produce a vast range of highest quality duck produce, including the luscious Foie Gras. Rich, buttery and delicate, packed with calories. A small piece is a feast. On a bed of salad leaves, with red winter berries, or in summer, tiny cherry tomatoes, it is pure indulgence.

This love of Foie Gras is not universal and several American states put pressure on people to stop eating it. Banned in 2006 by the city of Chicago, the product acquired a ritzy glamour, a new appeal. Demand became high with stories of people enjoying it in ‘Foie Gras speakeasies’. In May 2008 the City Council repealed the controversial ban; back it went on the menus and those who chose to eat it, did so.

Arguments continue with stories of birds in distress because of the practice of force feeding with breeders insisting that the birds simply get used to the process and are not in any great distress. People have been practising the ‘gavage’ as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians kept birds for food, deliberately fattening them by force feeding. Opinions may be divided elsewhere, but here, in the duck producing area of a country obsessed with quality food, where people have grown up with the stuff being made in their kitchens, the lobby against Foie Gras ‘n'existe pas’.

Many people in this area live largely from the produce of a smallholding and while they are kind and extremely generous, there is little sentimentality about rearing stock for eating. Memories are long and these people and their ancestors saw hard times during two world wars. The notion of not having Foie Gras because of discomfort to a duck or goose is an alien concept.

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