Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Our local Gastronomy - Foie Gras

In the foothills of the Pyrénées, as I packed up some high quality Foie Gras destined for Ireland, I mused on how, since coming to live in France in spring 2003, I have adopted the French attitude to food.

With a substantial quantity of this gourmet’s dream piled on a sideboard in the cool hallway of our rustic old house, I pondered on the fact that here we have a product considered so luxurious, so deluxe, by people in other countries, that they consider it to be completely exotic, a bit on the expensive side maybe; a fabulous, once a year treat.

It began when friends who spend part of each year over in the glorious olive and lavender growing Provence, were keen to see our totally different – but equally stunning – wild scenery. Here they first tasted the locally produced Foie Gras, bought some to take back to Ireland, where friends tasted it at the Christmas and New Year revels. Voila, the orders commenced and continued to grow each year.

Here in the Grand Sud, Foie Gras is everywhere. People look on it as a perfectly normal food. It is part of all the great occasions of course, but equally it can and does make an appearance at an ordinary lunch. As I became immersed in French life, shopped and cooked using local produce, I fell into the French way of thinking about Foie Gras. Like the mountains, it’s always there.

Nationally, it is considered a very important product and like so many foodstuffs ­­­- the French take these things very seriously - it is protected by law. Legislation designated Foie Gras as part of the officially protected, cultural and gastronomic patrimony of the country. France produces 83% of the world's Foie Gras and apparently eats more than 90% of it.

In most of the farmhouses around me and in small village houses too, it is made for family use. Life without Foie Gras would be unimaginable. Rich, buttery and delicate, it is such a luxurious product, packed with calories, that a small piece is a feast. On a bed of salad leaves, with red winter berries, or in summer, tiny cherry tomatoes, it makes for an opulent plate.

Some countries object to the very idea of Foie Gras and several of the American states put pressure on people to stop eating it. We had the astonishing tale of it being banned in 2006 by the city of Chicago, but the ban only gave the product a ritzy glamour, a new appeal. Demand became high with crazy stories of people enjoying it in ‘Foie Gras speakeasies’. In May 2008 the City Council repealed the controversial ban; back it went on the menus and those who chose to eat it did so, in public. 

Arguments continue with stories of birds in distress, because of the practice of force feeding. Breeders will tell you that the birds simply get used to the process and are not in any great distress, adding that people have been practising the ‘gavage’ as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians kept birds for food and deliberately fattened them through force feeding. The subject can and does inflame passions. 

In the Couseran hills, many people still live from the produce of a smallholding. They are kind and extremely generous, but there is little sentimentality about rearing stock for eating. Memories are long and these people and their ancestors saw very hard times indeed during two world wars.

On a larger scale, David Lemasson has for fifteen years been producing the highest quality duck produce, both fresh and preserved. The ducks are sourced in the neighbouring Gers department, from three farms who maintain the highest standards of animal welfare. Here in Ariège Pyrénées David and his team create a superb range of products, from whole Foie Gras to confit de canard, conserves and pâtés. These are hand-crafted, natural products, without any conservatives or dyes and and as well as in his jewel of a shop, they are found in top restaurants, butchers and discerning outlets.