The State of Foie Gras

By Marissa Guggiana La Brecque / Photography By Ryan Donahue | September 01, 2011
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Cutting into foie gras

On July 1, 2012, California Senate Bill 1520 (SB 1520) will go into effect. This statute, passed in 2004, bans, within the state of California, the production of foie gras by the “force-feeding” method, as well as the sale of any foie gras that has been produced by this method.

The reactions to this law and to foie gras itself remind me of so many other totem issues. Foie gras production is extremely limited in our country and relatively few people are involved in the commerce of foie gras. The number of people who know what actually happens to the ducks and geese that are raised for foie gras is very small. And yet it elicits deeply emotional responses.

Foie gras (pronounced fwah grah) is the liver of a duck or, more traditionally, a goose that has been fatted. The French word gavage describes gorging the fowl on a high carbohydrate diet, usually using a feeding tube. These birds do not have a gag reflex. The result of this overfeeding is the development of an extremely large liver. This combination of the animal’s natural, genetic traits and humans’ recognition of their ability to manipulate them is how foie gras production originated.

The first recorded evidence of foie gras consumption dates back to ancient Egyptian society, 45 centuries ago. Foie gras is silky and quintessentially rich. Part of diners’ and chefs’ attachment to the dish is its un-replicable taste and texture. Like many delicacies, it is coveted not only for its taste but for the singularity of its taste.

In the United States, there are currently only three companies that produce foie gras: Hudson Valley and La Belle Farms, both located in the state of New York, and Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras, located in California. All three make their foie gras solely from ducks, not geese. Sonoma-Artisan harvests foie gras from the Moulard hybrid of duck, made by crossing a Muscovy male and a Pekin female. Until their final two weeks of life, these ducks live lives that are identical to those of other ducks raised for food. During these last two weeks they are fed more and allowed to move around less, much like in any feedlot.

On the consumer side, this new California law will affect all chefs, restaurateurs and diners within the state who prepare, serve and consume the meat. Foie gras is almost exclusively sold in restaurants. It is a delicate meat and most home cooks don’t want to spend the retail cost for something that risks being spoiled by nonprofessional preparation, so they leave it to the experts. On the production side, it will reduce sales of the two out-of-state producers of foie gras who sell to California restaurants and markets. The most dire affect of the ban will be on Sonoma Valley’s Sonoma-Artisan, that will be forced to stop production completely by the date the ban goes into effect.

Currently, Sonoma-Artisan supplies about 10%–15% of the domestic foie gras market, according to Guillermo Gonzalez, co-owner of the business with his wife, Junny. Sonoma-Artisan is a family business and the couple’s daughter, Helena, is now involved, as well. The Gonzalez family has been in Sonoma County since the 1980s and I have never heard an ill word spoken of them. That is a noteworthy achievement in the meat business. The last 10 years have been increasingly difficult for them and their business. While sales are stable, the cost of grain continues to rise faster than conceivable increases to the sale price of foie. Beyond the constraints of the market, there has been an expensive onslaught of lawsuits filed against the Gonzalezes, both personally and against their company.

“It is not about animal rights so much as it is about the hidden agenda of the vegan movement,” said Guillermo Gonzalez in response to the law, which was introduced in the state Senate at the request of a coalition of four animal rights organizations, two of which have a very strong provegetarianism or -veganism stance.

Chris Cosentino, owner and chef of Incanto restaurant and Boccalone salumeria in San Francisco and a vocal advocate for responsible meat eating, told me “Many of the primary supporters behind this law are on the record as supporting a complete ban on all meats. This approach raises a question about the whole principle of personal choice, which is much more fundamental than just banning foie gras. What if meat eaters succeeded in making soy production illegal, because of the deforestation used to produce much of the world’s soy crop? Is that a fair outcome, simply because meat eaters believe that and are able to garner the political support needed to put a ban into effect?”

Many foie gras defenders believe this law is the “lowest hanging fruit,” as Gonzalez puts it, in the move towards increasingly pro-vegetarian legislation. “[Foie gras production] is so small that it was relatively without any defenders. It was an easy target. The average American eats less than four ounces of buffalo meat each year. But, that’s still 100 times more than the average American’s foie gras consumption.”

“It is a foothold and the propaganda is immense,” says chef Doug Richey, formerly chef at the now-closed Santi restaurant who is currently working on opening a new restaurant, to be called “Sweet T’s,” in Santi’s former Santa Rosa location. The casual, Southern-cuisine restaurant won’t be a foie gras type of spot but Richey strongly supports the production of foie. “To a certain degree, they have a less than perfect duck existence but I have looked at the practice and the anatomy [of the fowl] to form a moral compass on the matter and I still eat it,” he says.

So, how much less than perfect is the foie gras duck’s existence? It is hard to say exactly but most who have seen the foie gras ducks’ lives do not feel they are living a tortured existence. And the birds are certainly less hampered in their pursuit of fowl happiness than, say, almost any chicken sold at the supermarket. But, they are force-fed for a certain portion of their lives. There is no getting around that.

That said, Dan Barber found someone who gets around it. Barber is the chef of the world-famous Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. He has given a TED Taste3 conference talk delving into the problematic issue of the production of foie gras. Barber recounts meeting Eduardo Sousa in the Extramadura region of Spain. Sousa has created what Barber calls an “Eden” of figs and olives and a panoply of vegetation. He lets his geese eat as they like and come and go like bachelors on holiday. The accommodations are apparently so nice that migrating wild geese are signaled by Sousa’s birds to visit—and they stay. The result is what Barber reports to be “transformative” foie gras. (Barber isn’t the only fan: Sousa’s foie gras has won the vaunted Coup de Coeur given by the Paris International Food Salon.) What restricts Sousa’s production is that his birds can only eat like heroes at a homecoming during the harvest season. During the rest of the year the land doesn’t produce riches enough to create a sufficiently fatted liver. Force-feeding a corn mixture reproduces a close approximation, if not a transformative one—but it still loses something.

The heft of SB 1520 is more symbolic than culinary, considering that more people will read this article than will eat foie gras this week. But, to my mind, the symbolism is less about animal cruelty vs. preferences of the palate than it is about the complications of growing food. As Chris Cosentino said, “There’s that old saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Well, we already did change the system from the old and now it’s broke, so let’s fix it.”

This is my perspective on the issue of foie gras. In the interest of full disclosure, I ran a meat co-op in Sonoma County for five years that sold Sonoma-Artisan products.


Roasted Pear and Foie Gras Pizza


Recipe by Chef Doug Richey

Yield: 2 pizzas

I recommend a scale for measurement.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE DOUGH

150 grams “00” flour
100 grams rye flour
163 grams water
6 grams sea salt
Drizzle of honey
2 grams active dry yeast

TO PREPARE

Place the water and yeast in your mixing bowl and whisk for thirty seconds, then add the rest of the dry ingredients and the honey. Mix on a low speed for 3 minutes, then on high for 5 minutes, then again on low for 2 minutes. Remove the dough from the mixer and place in a large bowl to allow for rising.

Let rise for about an hour and a half, or until it doubles in size. Punch down to remove air.

Form into a ball and cut into two equal portions of 210 grams or roughly 7.4 ounces each. Shape each piece of dough into a ball. To do this, gently roll dough into a loose ball, then stretch the top of the ball down and around the rest of the ball, until the outer layer wraps around the other side. Pinch the two ends together to make a smooth ball with a tight outer “skin.” Place dough balls seam side down where they can rest. Dust them with flour, place under a damp towel or under plastic wrap and let them rest for an hour at room temperature. Once relaxed, you can stretch the dough into a disc by hand or with a rolling pin to about 10 inches in diameter.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE TOPPING

3 locally grown pears (when in season)
4 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened to very loose
A fistful of baby arugula
10 ounces grade-A foie gras (cold and sliced into ¼-inch slices)
Sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Locally produced saba (reduced grape must– available at local Whole Foods Markets, Oliver’s Markets and other specialty food retailers)

TO PREPARE

Try any local pear for this recipe, but I like Comice. Slice them from top to bottom and core with a melon baller or teaspoon.

Season with salt and pepper and roast core side up in a 425° oven until fork tender.

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Cut each half into about 12 thin slices.

Poached pears are also fantastic.

BUILDING YOUR PIZZA

To build your pie, stretch or roll out each dough ball to 10 inch diameter and dock (poke) with a fork around the whole skin. Spread half of the mascarpone with a spoon over your skin. (Note: If mascarpone is too tight, warm it in a double boiler or microwave until loose enough to spread).

Arrange about half of your pear slices around the pie.

FIRING YOUR PIZZA

In a wood-fired oven we usually cook our pies on a deck that runs about 725° so it cooks fast. At home on a pizza stone or what have you, I recommend your highest oven setting.

Place the pie in the oven for at least a minute before adding the slices of foie gras that have been held in your refrigerator. I recommend this because it allows the crust to form on the skin before adding the foie gras. After about a minute or two, pull the pie out of the fire or oven and arrange the slices of the foie gras around the pie and then place it back in the oven for about 2 more minutes. Once the foie gras has become supple and is starting to resemble butter on top of pancakes, it is done.

Remove the pie from the oven and season with the sea salt and cracked pepper.

Garnish with as much or little arugula as you like and drizzle with some local saba.

Fantastic with a crisp glass of Lambrusco.

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