We live in the world’s foie gras centre. It’s a bold claim, but when you consider that Dordogne is the centre of foie gras production for France, and France is the centre of foie gras for the world, it’s not too big a stretch, unlike the necks of the geese which are stretched for force-feeding. It’s a wonderful, valuable delicacy and divine to eat. This is one you have to decide for yourselves, but my experience is first-hand, always a great place to gain conviction.
Foie gras quite literally means “liver fat”, and is made from the livers of ducks or geese that have been force-fed to produce an enlarged, super-fatty liver. At least, that is what French law demands for using this name. French law states that, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France”. So if you want to produce it somewhere else using force-feeding, or do it with natural feeding such as in Spain, you cannot call it foie gras. That’s another reason we are at the centre of foie gras in the world; it cannot be made anywhere else, anyway. Finally, of the 30,000 people working in the foie gras industry in France, 90% of them live in the Dordogne. We think we’ve met at least half of them.
It’s no surprise then, that as we immerse ourselves in this rural countryside and attend markets three or four times a week, foie gras is forced into our faces, a bit like feeding the geese. We got curious and decided to investigate its ever-present presence. This was precipitated by Fest’Oie, the Festival of the Goose, held in Sarlat-la-Canéda. Sarlat is our nearest “big town”, 25 minutes away. It is a wonderful medieval town which also has modern and useful shops outside its ancient centre, and we go there often. Annually on the first weekend in March, the Goose Festival attracts thousands of people from all over France to celebrate all things “oie”, (pronounced “waah”). It afforded a wonderful opportunity to dive in and start discovering.
Firstly, the taste. We’ve probably all had foie gras at some time in our lives. Goose foie gras has a delicate liver-like flavour, (what else?), with the texture of pure silk. It is simply divine; delicate, moist, graceful – it tastes like no other food. Duck foie gras is almost indiscernibly coarser, and more strongly flavoured but the top of this pinnacle is definitely occupied by King Goose. Foie Gras may be used in other dishes to flavour them, as an aperitif, or by itself as a tiny main course. No one lavishes foie gras on anyone else because its retail price is €90 per kilogram, or AU$155, for goose and only slightly less for duck.
We have seen myriad ways to procure foie gras in every market. It has been pushed at us in tins, cans, bottles, terrines and glass jars. Its purveyors all claim that their foie gras is the most superior, cooked according to their ancient recipe handed down by their seventh generation farmer ancestors. As fattening the goose can be dated back to 2,500 BC, this makes them relatively inexperienced.
The varieties are huge. Part-cooked, fully-cooked, steeped in sherry, roasted in honey, poached in pears, filling up figs, pasted inside prunes, draped around dates, eaten with walnuts and wine, sold inside leftover goose necks, sliced into pork fillets, churned into rillettes – the ways of preparing it and selling it, are limitless. The one thing it has in common, is that it is the man-fattened liver of poultry.
Until this point, we have ignored its manufacture, and bought tiny smidges of it here and there at various markets while cooing and mumbling at its gorgeousness. Fest’Oie promised 18 different foie gras vendors, all hawking their wares and tempting us with the offer of “free tastings”. It was irresistible, but having a conscience, we decided to also visit a Goose Farm to see the happy birds growing up and learn for ourselves the truth behind the purported torture. I didn’t expect we would see the gavage, the force-feeding. I had read that most bird-stuffing took place between November and December in readiness for Christmas, and at the time of the annual goose migration.
Wasn’t I stupid? At €90 per kilo, of course this industry operates all year round.
Driving beyond Sarlat, we arrived at our Goose Farm – no names given to protect this lovely family business. A huge field of at least four acres, nicely grassed, surrounded by a 12 cm high, single strand of wire, contained a flock of around 200 geese. These seven week old goslings (bought for €7 euro each), were resting, feeding, foraging, honking, and looking the picture of mellow contentment. The fact it was March and they should have migrated from the country about six months ago did not seem to affect them.
They were provided with plenty of water and lots of porridge-style food containing wheat, maize, corn and corn starch. They were free-range and could eat anything else in their paths too, at their own time and pace. What if their wings were clipped to prevent them flying away? No problem. They could waddle and honk into their huge, warm, straw-filled shed at night and huddle into sleep. Around 400 Barbary Ducks were similarly free-ranging in their two acres, with views over the rolling countryside, a trickling river down to a lake, warm sun and blue skies. There is no doubt these birds are maintained in an idyllic setting and are pampered kings and queens. No “waah” from us yet.
I am reminded that the Spanish similarly maintain their fighting bulls before their massacre in the bull ring, and was similarly sceptical. See my bull fighting article June 2016 somewhere in the digital sphere.
The bouncing, large, happy farmer’s wife, Mother Goose, who runs this property with her two adult sons, met the guests with smiles and energy. Beaming, she introduced us to her seventh generation family farm. Great. I was in one of “those” farms, one with real authority. Beaming, she began the story I’d heard in other places. It’s a litany they all deliver. I’ve heard it so often I knew the PR Agent for the foie gras industry had been here too, doing excellent work. They all sing from the same honk-sheet. It goes like this…
“When geese are about to migrate in Autumn, they always spend the prior three months gobbling down all the food they can find, to fatten themselves up to prepare their bodies for the long flights ahead. This is a natural process, which we copy by fattening them up more rapidly”. There it is, the Fake News, that geese don’t mind being force-fed “because they were going to do it anyway”.
I suspended disbelief, because I didn’t know that I was soon to witness the gavage; I could dismiss it as a Christmas-only torture. My commercial instincts had quite fled, lost in the enchantment of old, golden stone houses, beautiful barns, warm straw and that peaceful barnyard. It was pure Enid Blyton.
We were shown inside the big barn where the birds spend the last two and a half weeks of their lives. They never come out of this shed again. Now five months old, they are put into large, clean, steel pens with wire grating floors so that their merde can flow straight out into the concrete merde-pool one metre below. The goose-poo is systematically hosed away and used to fertilise the fields of corn, wheat and maize that are then fed back into these flocks. The economic sustainability is excellent in this closed loop supply chain. The son is justifiably proud that they use no chemicals or preservatives and follow the ancient techniques of farming that are centuries old, long before his great grandfather three times back discovered that fat goose livers would make him a millionaire.
The geese live 15 to a pen. The ducks are in pens of 20. None is crammed in. These are big pens about one metre wide by three metres long. Four goose pens are presently occupied with a total of 60 geese, six duck pens with 120 ducks. It’s clean, well-lit and not smelly due to the steady floor-washing. I cannot imagine how it stank in the olden days.
Down the centre of the two rows of pens runs a large square steel vat on rollers, out of which extends a flexible hose like a vacuum cleaner hose, with a narrow, polished steel feeding tube, about 3 cm diameter and 30 centimetres long. Like a milk maid, the son takes his seat on a stool in the centre of the pen. Naturally the birds have moved to the end of the pen furthest from him, as their instinct would dictate they would. The fact some of them look like they are scrambling over each other in their anxiety to avoid contact with him, must be my imagination. I am certainly suddenly overwrought as I realise I am about to see a gavage. Like at a horror movie, I am fixated. Now it has become “waaaaaah”.
He grasps the first goose by the neck, holds the bird vertically so its neck is at full extension, inserts the tube part-way down the goose’s throat, and presses a button. A measured 400 ml dose of corn porridge made with corn kernels and corn starch is electronically delivered down the neck of the bird, and it’s all over in a few seconds. The goose is pushed to the other end of the pen, sated for the next few hours. It doesn’t need to forage now, does it?
The geese receive 1.6 kilos of food a day, spaced over four feedings, hours apart, for better digestion and absorption. And less distress. I am sure wild geese could eat this much if they really tried, pre-migration, couldn’t they? Meanwhile, my gag reflex has responded to the tube and I feel greatly “wah”.
The process looks painless, the goose is wagging its tail as it is freed (I have to remind myself this is not a dog and I know nothing of goose behaviour), and the son is smiling bucolically at the visitors. If I think I see a bird stumbling, or sinking to the ground because it can no longer support its own weight, I must be mistaken. This is Mother Goose Land and everything is happy here.
At the end of 17 days, the geese are “felt” for their extended livers, humanely slaughtered in “the killing house” where we are taken next, and donate most of their body parts to other causes. It is a European standard that an animal must be put to sleep before it can be killed. Nice one Europe! I wonder if England will have that after Brexit?
In the killing house, which we are fortunately not made to see but which is happily described, a two pronged zapper is applied to their beak and eye and 1,000 volts generates Sleeping Goose. Their throats are slit, blood quickly emptied and the bird placed in a huge tub of hot water for three minutes to soften and clean everything. Now sterilised, another machine strips the carcass of feathers and down. What happens to those, I ask? “You’re wearing it” he says, indicating my goose-down parka. Oh. Yes. Of course.
Each ex-goose is lovingly handled, and meticulously zapped, killed, boiled and scraped, one by one. It’s highly labour-intensive. I am glad Mother Goose has two strapping eighth generation sons to manage the family enterprise.
Our questions answered by the English-speaking Daniel, we are invited onto the terrace of the ancient farmhouse to admire the vista with delighted ducks splashing in the lake and to partake of foie gras samples, foie gras rillettes and foie gras stuffed dates. Some Monbazillac white is a perfect accompaniment. As the heaven-sent flavour of stuffed liver slips down our throats, the fact is reinforced that the geese are humanely raised, humanely stuffed and humanely killed. They would not be born in the first place if it weren’t for this delicacy, and 30,000 people would be out of work. An ancient tradition would die if we stopped eating it, simply for humanitarian causes, wouldn’t it? Anything resembling animal torture must be fiction.
Invited finally to the gift shop to buy purchases for home consumption, lovingly welcomed by the gorgeous Border Collie, Charley, who loves one up into buying more, I find myself spending too many euros on duck confit, duck farci and goose foie gras. It’s a spur of the moment, gift shop thing to do after a fascinating tour on a mellow Monbazillac-soaked afternoon.
Weeks later, when the excitement of Fest’Oie has waned, which was a joyful evening spent standing, eating and drinking with our new American friends Joseph and Hannah at long tables set up under marquees, where hundreds of visitors from as far away as Holland and Toulouse come annually to celebrate the goose, where we enjoyed bands, wine, catering, dancing and conversation on a really fabulous and happy night, I resolved that I would not eat foie gras ever again.
We ate our last gift-shop tin by the end of March, and my mind was now made up. On principle, I will not forget the over-fattened geese, their stumbling waddle and their horror to escape the man with the feeding wand. That was not fiction; that was fact. Foie Gras, you have just joined bull fighting, in my view, as something to be despised and banned for ever more! On principle!
Later that season, we book a luxury weekend at a five-star chateau with a Michelin starred restaurant overlooking the glorious Dordogne. We want to celebrate our love of the Périgord as we prepare to leave it in early May. First course here in the centre of the foie gras universe …? I’m not telling, but I know it’s a wonderful, valuable delicacy and will be divine to eat. Waaah…