Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once described foie gras as “one of the most delicious things on the planet, and one of the 10 most important flavors in gastronomy.”
For some, however, that flavor comes at too high a price.
Foie gras, or “fatty liver,” is made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened, most typically through a process of force feeding in which a 7- to 11-inch plastic or steel tube is inserted into the animal’s esophagus. (Some industrial operations insert a pump-fed tube directly into a slit in the esophagus.) The fattening period comes toward the end of a bird’s life, and lasts anywhere between 12 to 18 days, with animals eating more than 2 pounds of feed (in dry weight) per day by the end of the process. The result is a liver that is six to 10 times its ordinary size.
Gastronomes contend that foie gras production is not necessarily cruel, and point to other industrial animal husbandry methods as evidence that it has been unfairly singled out. Activists warn, however, that birds can suffer injury to the esophagus, and a European Union report into the production of foie gras did conclude that it was detrimental to the welfare of birds.
For farmers like Eduardo Sousa (shown at right) of Pateria de Sousa in Badajoz, Spain, however, asking whether foie gras production is any more or less cruel than industrial-scale caged egg production, for example, is somewhat missing the point. Because the physiological basis of foie gras production is the migratory bird’s ability to put on a huge amount of weight, farmers like Sousa suggest that we can take advantage of this to produce foie gras seasonally and naturally from free-range birds that are preparing themselves for migration season.
However, this method does not work on an industrial scale — and that's just fine with Sousa.
Sousa, whose family business has been producing free-range foie gras since 1812, argues that the small-scale, seasonality of his product is a limitation, but it is not necessarily a drawback. As Sousa says in the Perennial Plate video above:
“Others have shown an interest in learning from our methods. They called me from France to ask if they could learn, and we of course had no problem. But when they came, they weren’t interested in non-industrial methods. A producer from Tuluz said ‘You only produce 1,000 birds a year? I produce 4,000 a day. How are you going to make money?’ And I told him that everything is not about making money. Our system isn’t just a business; it’s a way of life.”
Sousa grew up eating his family’s foie gras, but even for them, it was a luxury.
His parents insisted that it should be for special occasions only, and it traditionally has been a food reserved for Christmas and New Year's. Yet as global consumption has spiked, especially in emerging markets like China, consumers have come to expect year-round availability. Production has increased to match supply with demand.
Pateria de Sousa’s production methods could never offer industrial-scale, global foie gras production. But they could replace it. By championing seasonality, respect, and production based on the limitations and opportunities present in each bioregion, Sousa reminds us that true enjoyment of our food cannot, or should not, be separated from our understanding of how it was produced:
“When I tried foie from the market — industrial foie — it was delicious. When I learned how they make it, it stopped tasting so delicious to me.”
Be sure to check out our interview with Daniel Klein of The Perennial Plate to learn more about this inspiring online food show.
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