Arnold Schwarzenegger may have banned foie gras in California, but judging from the enthusiasm for it in France, it’s unlikely that anyone will try to take away France’s traditional holiday feast.
Anyone interested in a piece of fat liver?
Gascony, in the southwest of France, is foie gras country. At Claude St. Blancard’s farm, foie gras is a family affair. He and his wife and three daughters raise and slaughter 3,000 ducks a year. While they sell gastronomic food products using the entire bird, foie gras is their specialty.
"In our region, it's the finest delicacy," St. Blancard said. "It has an unctuous texture and it fills your palate. Foie gras makes a meal special and it's a symbol of celebration -- of Christmas and New Years, marriages and baptisms. In Gascony, where we celebrate around the dinner table, foie gras is always invited."
In the noisy slaughter room of the farm next door, one of St. Blancard’s neighbors, Patricia Thomaselli, prepares foie gras for the tables of popular Parisian restaurants. She kills the birds, bleeds them, removes their feathers, washes them and cuts them open to remove their foie gras. After removing the intestines and the gizzard, Thomaselli lifts out an enormous, tan colored foie gras that seemed to have filled the entire belly of the bird.
A distinctly French delicacy
Jorge Vargas uses a funneled pipe to force-feed a measured dose of corn mush to a Moulard duck in its pen at Sonoma Foie Gras in California
While Hungary, Israel and a few places in California and New York make foie gras, France produces and consumes 90 percent of the delicacy. A traditional holiday image in France is the happy, beret-wearing farmer herding his flock of ducks and geese. But making foie gras requires that geese and ducks be force-fed and kept immobile for the last days of their lives, until their livers become swollen and fat.
Foie gras has become controversial in places such as California, where its production will be banned starting in 2012. And even in France, a growing number of people are questioning the methods used in this billion-dollar industry.
One animal rights group has made a film of what it calls the horrors of the force-feeding room and is trying to educate the French public about what the geese and ducks go through to produce foie gras. Dominique Hoffpower is a member of the group.
"They are kept in individual cages for about 10 days," said Hoffpower. "They are force-fed with a tube, twice a day into their throats, about two pounds of corn per day. And that makes their liver swell to about eight times its normal size so they can't breathe, they don't sleep anymore and some of them die before the end. That's what foie gras is."
Born to gorge?
But as he force-fed his ducks, St. Blancard, insisted that the animals do not suffer: Foie gras was first discovered by the ancient Egyptians, he said, adding that making it only exploits the migrating waterfowl’s natural ability to gorge themselves and store the excess fat in their livers before long flights.
"We do everything for the ducks to be comfortable," he said. "They always have clean water and fresh air. Yes, they have to digest intensively, that's true and we can't deny it. But they're not sick. It's like a sporting challenge for them. We do not hurt the birds because if they are unwell they can not produce a nice liver."
Moulard ducks, 5-6 weeks old, gather in a covered pen
But St. Blancard admited that large, industrial producers may not take as much care with their birds.
While animal activists so far have not driven any foie gras producers out of business in France, European Union regulations may. The EU has demanded that the cages widely used by French farmers be replaced by larger ones so that the birds can move freely, for example.
For St. Blancard, fulfilling the new regulations will set him back 15,400 euros ($20,000) -- all for something he says is an attempt to bring more political correctness to the foie gras industry.