Foie gras, the fatty, unctuous liver of over-fed ducks has always been perceived as a delicacy, or reviled as the epitome of animal cruelty. It's existence has been inextricably linked with force-feeding since its inception by the ancient Egyptians centuries ago, and its that method of production, better known as la gavage (force-feeding) that remains the cause of international legislation and protests against it. But the culinary hoopla may finally be put to rest, and appetites for ethical foie gras satisfied, thanks to the recent discovery of quality, gavage-free foie gras courtesy of a man who many, including chef Dan Barber, refer to as "the goose whisperer."
Eduardo Sousa, a free-range farmer in the Extremadura region of Spain raises geese for the production of foie gras, but would never dream of partaking in la gavage. Instead, he provides them with a plentiful spread of regional foods, including figs, nuts and herbs, knowing that the geese will instinctively gorge on food in preparation for the coming winter and long migration south.
By early December the geese at Pateria de Sousa can be seen waddling around the grounds, their swollen bellies nearly dragging on the ground as a result of their gluttony. Sousa harnesses nature whenever possible in order to create a more delicious and ethical product, eliminating the need for force-feeding. When his artisanal foie gras was deemed too dull and gray in comparison to the bright yellow livers of geese raised on force-fed, artificially colored corn, Sousa planted bright orange flowers native to the area around the grounds of his farm. The geese feasted and his blindingly yellow foie gras was born.
But for all his efforts, Sousa cannot escape the choke hold of la gavage. After wining the prestigious Coup de Coeur for Best Foie Gras from the Paris International Food Salon in 2007, French foie gras makers demanded the prize be revoked on the grounds that his product could not truly be called foie gras. They claimed that proper foie gras is created exclusively as a result of forceful overfeeding, and his product was therefore exempt. Sousa responded in kind, noting that the Spanish method was gaining major ground in the industry and that, "Many countries are going to ban the practice of artificially fattening these birds and the French are afraid of this."
Sousa's artisanal foie gras movement has yet to spread despite its increasing international legislation against its traditional manufacture (which is currently illegal in parts of England). While Chicago repealed its two-year long ban on the sale of foie gras in 2008, California, home to a sole foie gras producer, Sonoma Foie Gras, will be seeing a ban on its production in 2012. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill in 2004, requiring that Sonoma shut down the operation or convert it to another use by 2012 due to demonstrable animal cruelty by force-feeding. Sonoma opened its doors to legislators, showing them that their geese live in safer and cleaner conditions than every major FDA-approved chicken farm in the United States, but the legislation was upheld. The presence of gavage gave the farm its death sentence.
Whether more "ethical" foie gras operations will pop up in the near future remains to be seen, but Dan Barber, this year's James Beard Award winner for Best Chef and owner of Blue Hill, the biodynamic restaurant (and recent Obama date-night haunt), has championed Sousa's cause, even going so far as to attempt making foie gras in Sousa's style. While Stone Barns, Barber's Hudson Valley farm is located in a relatively fertile part of the east coast, it lacked the overwhelming fertility and ideal conditions that Sousa's landscape is blessed with, resulting in what the chef jokingly calls "failed gras." As to how the lack of operations like Sousa's will affect food in the long run, Barber says that, "There is no question that we are facing a less delicious future." For Barber, Sousa's methods are "the ultimate expression of sustainability and resiliency," and clearly "the key to understanding the future of our agriculture."
By working with the land around him instead of exploiting it, Sousa has managed to deliver a consistently high-quality product sought out by foodies and chefs the world over. His example is not only admirable, but proof to many that ecological obstacles are surmountable if you work within the realm of natural solutions instead of leaning on the crutch of cheap chemicals, toxins and cruelty. While he produces less foie gras less often than most traditional producers and makes less money from his product, Sousa's popularity and that of his foie gras have skyrocketed following his Coup de Coeur win. His foie gras routinely sells out through his European distributors, proving that there is indeed a market for cruelty-free products despite their price (one jar of Sousa's foie gras costs roughly 66 pounds), and American foodies have lit up the blogosphere in search of Sousa's foie gras, which does not yet have an American distributor.
While expecting producers across the food system to apply Sousa's methodology and passion for sustainability to their own areas is a tall order, big picture change is not completely out of the question. With everything from chickens, cows and pigs being overfed mass amounts and slaughtered at record speeds in factory farms, Sousa's model may not fit every mold, but it's a worthy template for change. After all, if one man can turn a time-honored tradition like foie gras farming on its ear and win awards doing it, the key to cruelty-free natural farming may not be far behind.
Dan Barber's foie gras parable
The Traditional Foie Gras Process
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