Foie gras, French for “fat liver”, is made from the cooked liver of a duck or goose that has been specifically fattened – and it gets hearts racing. From the culinary die-hards who wax poetic at its mention to the animal lovers who are appalled at the thought of it, foie gras rarely gets a middle-of-the- road response.
While animal rights group GAIA ships its alternative out for the holidays, a foie gras producer in West Flanders wonders what all the fuss is about
Buttery and delicious, the famous flavour seems too good to be true. And in some ways it is: to get such a rich and decadent meat, one has to force feed the duck an excess of food for an extended period of time – a process known as gavage – so that the liver is engorged, enlarged and fatty.
This process has many people, and not just vegetarians, opposed to eating or buying foie gras. Banned from production in a number of EU countries and the recipient of the ire of animal rights groups across the globe, foie gras persists in Belgium’s culinary traditions despite the disdain from neighbouring countries Germany, the UK and the Netherlands.
Belgium not only eats foie gras but also produces it, placing it among few countries in the world that do so, including France, Spain, Hungary and China.
Filip Callemeyn and his wife, Veerle Van Dousselaere, have been making foie gras in Bekegem, West Flanders, for exactly 20 years. “Our little village is now known by our foie gras; people come from all over the country to buy it,” says Callemeyn.
Originally from a family of cow and pig farmers, Callemeyn chose to specialise in foie gras production after taking courses in France. Bekegemse Foie Gras covers every aspect of production, with the couple overseeing more than 30,000 ducks a year.
They receive 1,200 day-old mallard ducklings every two weeks. The ducks stay under a heat lamp for a couple of weeks and then wander the farm for the next three months. Grass and grain fed during that period, Callemeyn begins to ready the ducks for the infamous gavage by only feeding grains at certain times, encouraging the bird’s natural inclination to binge.
Up to this point, the ducks have had a pretty good life. But their last two weeks are staunchly different.
Ducks are placed in small, individual cages and force fed twice a day. That means 600 feedings an hour, or about 10 birds a minute. Callemeyn starts out with smaller amounts and gradually increases to 350 grams twice a day – a little more than 10% of their body weight.
The cages prevent movement so the ducks can gain weight, and they also facilitate the feeding process, which increases production. On 1 January, 2011, a European ban against cages goes into effect. This means that Callemeyn will have to go into a pen with a stool and hand pick each duck to feed it, significantly delaying the process.
He also says the requirement will increase the stress of the bird. “We don’t let visitors come to see our ducks because they are easily stressed. They know who we are and are comfortable with us. I imagine when I come in to the pen and have to chase a duck to feed it, all the remaining ducks will be scared and running away.”
“Plus, ducks are aggressive and fight each other. Geese are social birds and can go in communal pens but ducks are not meant to socialize in groups. Not having cages seems like it will increase the stress for the ducks.”
When asked if gavage stresses the birds, Van Dousselaere says she doesn’t think so, but it is obvious they are tired of the questions. They shake their heads at the mention of the videos showing gavage, indicating that only the most disturbing images are shown and feature outdated methods and instruments. For them, there really is no issue.
“You can’t compare a duck to a human. Ducks don’t have a gag reflex and are built to gorge. We stimulate a natural process that occurs every fall,” says Callemeyn. He is referring to ducks and geese natural tendency to overeat in the autumn months to ready their bodies for the harsh winter and migration ahead. Gavage, of course, makes foie gras available year round.
Foie gras for the 21st century
Eduardo Sousa, a farmer in Spain, is attempting to change the playing field of foie gras by producing it without gavage. The topic of a talk by famous New York chef Dan Barber on the TED website, word is spreading of the farmer who makes foie gras only after the birds have naturally gorged.
This solution has Belgium’s animal rights organisation GAIA completely satisfied. “If gavage stops, we stop,” says GAIA director Ann De Greef. “In 2011, the cages will be eliminated through the EU’s recommendation. The only other aspect of foie gras that we disagree with is the gavage. We are not interested in if people eat meat or not. We care about how the animals are raised, and we think gavage is torture.”
In response to the ongoing feeding practice, GAIA launched an alternative to foie gras called, cutely, faux gras. Last year 3,500 tins were created and sold within a week of production, despite a lack of distributor. This year, they are taking the campaign up a notch, producing 30,000 tins and distributing them through Carrefour, Lidl and a number of bio shops for the holiday season.
“We have worked since the existence of GAIA against foie gras,” says De Greef. “We are happy to make an alternative; if it replaces a single foie gras purchase, it is a victory for animal rights.”
A victory for animals, but not likely to convince foie gras fans. The tin (€3.99) opens to reveal a pasty, peach-coloured pâté with a distinct difference in smell and texture from foie gras. Faux gras tastes a bit sweet, with a clove and cinnamon dessert-like flavour to it. While creamy, it simply isn’t foie gras.
The concept is appealing, but no foie gras lover would be satisfied, so it’s hard to see how it slows the sale of the real thing.
Truth be told, foie gras persists because there isn’t anything quite like its melt-in-your-mouth delicacy, and there lies the conundrum. It’s a dish so reliably good that Belgium’s best restaurants feature it on their menus, including both Flanders’ triple Michelin- starred restaurants: Karmeliet in Bruges has a €52 marble of goose liver with sweet and sour vegetables and green apple jelly starter, and Hof Van Cleve in Kruishoutem has a main course of wild pheasant with celeriac and foie gras for €75.
Bekegemse Foie Gras
The Bekegemse Foie Gras recipe is simple: duck liver, salt and pepper. Their secret to making Belgium’s favourite foie gras is in the cooking time and temperature. Products are cooked at a lower temperature, making them extremely rich and creamy. But not long lasting – unlike French versions in tins or glass, this foie gras is shrink wrapped and should be eaten within a week. The Bereide Eendenlever (ready-to-eat duck liver) is €85.10 a kilo, and they recommend about 50 grams per person, served with an onion confit or their own port jelly and paired with a sweet white wine. Or buy Faux Gras, the only alternative on the market, offered by animal rights group GAIA. While it doesn’t taste remotely the same, it is 100% guilt free.