Friday, 24 October 2008

An Insatiable Taste for Foie Gras

When I wrote my article about New York chefs’ apparent fascination with foie gras back on 1st October, I had no idea the storm that was brewing over here – across the pond from New York in London. It seems London chefs have developed something of a fascination with foie gras as well – in fact restaurant critic Zoe Strimple recently wrote that “London has gone foie gras mad”.

I decided to do a bit of gastronomic research (it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it), and my forays into London’s finest restaurants revealed that Zoe was right on the mark. From restaurants at the Ritz in Park Lane to those at the Dorchester Hotel, from the Criterion Grill in Piccadilly Circus to the iconic Ivy, every London restaurant I investigated had at least one dish on their menu made with foie gras. Obviously I would not choose these dishes because, as I have mentioned in my first article, I simply do not like the taste. But had I suddenly decided I wanted to try foie gras again, I would have been spoiled for choice of dishes containing it.

Now I appreciate that economic hardship is likely to be felt last at places like the aforementioned hotels and restaurants, but it seems odd to me that in these days of economic slowdown, something as expensive as foie gras would be making such an impact. But making an impact it is. And at the same time, it is also causing huge controversy.

As the production of foie gras requires a process called gavage, many people are quite repelled by the idea of eating it. Gavage involves geese or ducks being force fed copious amounts of grain in order to make their liver swell to many times its normal size. This is accomplished by feeding them through a large tube that is forced down their throats. The birds are then slaughtered and foie gras is made with their swollen livers. As more people learn about this process, their revulsion is translating into action.

It was reported earlier this year that Prince Charles had banned foie gras from his royal residences, and instructed his chefs that they should neither buy nor serve it. He is not the only famous person to take a stand against this cruelly produced delicacy. Musician Phil Collins recently wrote a letter to the famous British department store, Selfridges, imploring them to stop selling foie gras in their stores. The Duke and Duchess of Hamilton publicly boycotted Selfridges earlier this year for their sale of foie gras, and have urged others to do likewise. Sir Roger Moore has publicly backed the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign to accomplish this as well. It seems to be thought that if we can stop large companies selling foie gras, we might be able to stop it being consumed and therefore reduce demand for it.

Sadly I don’t think that is going to happen. There seems to be an inexplicable fascination with this product that is actually increasing the number of people who enjoy eating it, rather than decreasing it. Now as I’ve said before, I just can’t understand this. I can tolerate neither the taste of foie gras nor its texture. But from the number of restaurant chefs out there who are incorporating it into their menus, I’m almost certainly in the minority. Gastronomes the world over seem to revel in this delicacy. Chefs everywhere are working to develop new and different ways to serve it in order to tickle their pallets. Even the fact that many of these chefs are receiving threatening letters or being targeted by vandals for their use of this controversial ingredient does not seem to bother them. London chefs offer everything from Simmered Duck Foie Gras with Mango to Royale of Foie Gras with Butternut Squash, and still the proliferation of dishes with foie gras in them continues.

Furthermore, a ban on foie gras does not necessarily work. When Chicago banned the sale of foie gras in 2006, the delicacy simply went underground. I’m told by a reliable source that if you wanted foie gras in a Chicago restaurant you could get it during the ban, if you knew how to do it. Some restaurants even became “duckeasies”, where foie gras could be obtained on production of a card or even a code word. As a result, the Chicago ban was recently repealed.

There is an “ethical” version of foie gras available, produced in Spain, which avoids the use of gavage completely. Apparently, wild geese in Spain migrate to Africa every winter. Before the migration, they eat as much as possible in order to build up food stores for the flight. At Pateria de Sousa, a company who makes this “ethical” foie gras, geese are allowed to eat as much as they like on the 30 acres of pasture on which they roam free. As they believe they are about to migrate, they consume huge amounts of natural foods – including figs, lupins, acorns and olives. This fattens the birds up naturally without the trauma of force feeding. The major disappointment for the geese however is that there is no journey to Africa ahead. Rather there is a much shorter journey to place where they are humanely slaughtered (is there such a thing?) and their livers are made into foie gras. Still, at least they had a nicer life, however short it might have been. Plus, Pateria de Sousa’s foie gras has won awards, even in France, so clearly it tastes extremely good if you like that sort of thing.

So why not completely eliminate foie gras produced with the gavage method? Happy birds (well, up till the very last minute of course) and happy people - problem solved. Or not as the case may be. You see, in the first instance, geese only migrate once a year, so this means the “ethical” foie gras can only be made once a year. It also costs more to produce and therefore costs more to the consumer, about half again as much as traditional foie gras, or about 500 euro (625 US dollars) per kilogram.

So it looks like the geese and ducks chosen to make foie gras, are, in most cases, still pretty much out of luck. And the controversy rages on. But in restaurants in London, New York and Chicago, you can still eat as much foie gras as you like in a myriad of dishes designed to tempt you. Maybe it’s a last hurrah before the pressure of public opinion forces foie gras underground once again, or maybe it’s just an attempt to fly in the face of economic slowdown, but for the moment, whether we like it or not, it seems foie gras is here to stay.

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