Foie Gras

A Lesson in Sustainable Farming

I have always enjoyed watching TED Talks and I recently came across a series entitled "Chew On This". 

One talk in particular caught my eye: "Dan Barber's Foie Gras Parable".

Dan Barber is the executive chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants in New York. In addition to graduating from the French Culinary Institute, he received a B.A. in English from Tufts University and is married to a writer. This unique set of education skills and life environment has primed Barber for a life of culinary journalism. He frequently combines the dining experience with learning something new and is an advocate for sustainable living and farming.

Foie gras is the direct opposite of sustainable living. The delicacy is the fattened liver of a duck or a goose that has been force-fed corn through the process of gavage. Farmers that produce it use a feeding tube to force corn down the throat of the animals, forcibly expanding the liver by up to eight times its natural size. It is outlawed in many parts of the world, including some U.S. states, and any chef that dares to put it on his menu risks being attacked or ridiculed.

You can imagine why this particular TED Talk caught my eye.

Barber's presentation on foie gras started with his trip to Extremadura, Spain where he met a man named Eduardo Sousa on his farm. Sousa has carried on the work that his great-grandfather started and, what makes his farm so unique, is that he does not use gavage to produce his foie gras.

The Sousas had been quietly working on their farm, La Pateria de Sousa, for many generations. That is until 2006 when Eduardo won the Coup de Coeur Award in Paris. This prestigious award brought Sousa much recognition from the French and they were greatly displeased. They considered Sousa's foie gras to be a fake and even accused him of paying off the judges. Many of the other contestants saw it as cheating.

But Dan Barber will attest to the truth that Eduardo Sousa's foie gras is not only naturally produced, but the most delicious foie gras he has ever tasted. 

So how does Sousa produce it naturally? He gives the geese what they want. 

In the Fall, when the temperatures drop, geese, just like all other animals, prepare for winter. For geese that means gorging on all the food they can find. Sousa takes advantage of this natural instinct and simply feeds the geese. Barber recounts tasting Sousa's foie gras, insisting that it must be cooked in something special, or seasoned with herbs, but Sousa assured him that he had done nothing but confit it. Barber said he could specifically taste star anise and that is when Sousa ushered him out to the field. 

Sousa, after generations of cultivating the difficult land, has many herb plants growing in the fields where the geese eat. Simply by ingesting the bouquet of grasses, flowers, and herbs, the geese flavor their own livers and Sousa does not need to add anything extra. There is another special plant Sousa has added to the field and that is the lupin bush. The lupin bush is a plant with bright yellow seeds and the geese love to eat it. A side-effect of not using the gavage method is that Sousa's livers are a dull grey color. Chefs and foie gras enthusiasts look for a bright yellow color that accompanies livers of the highest quality. Sousa planted the lupin bush so that, when the geese eat the seeds, their livers turn a bright yellow.

Sousa takes exceedingly good care of his geese, even to the point where he lets the geese eat as much of the olives and other crops on his farm as they want. Sousa sells these crops for a large profit, but he lets the geese eat about half of them. The crops can bring in a much higher yield than his foie gras, but it is what the geese need and so he allows them all that they want.

Sousa also has a fence around his fields that is electrified. Contrary to popular practice, however, he only electrifies the outside of the fence. He insisted that the geese felt trapped when the electricity was on the inside and he found that, when he altered the current, the geese ate about 20% more food.

It is in Sousas best interest to care so well for his geese for many reasons, but one reason in particular allows his farm to continue to produce foie gras. When Barber was visiting, he witnessed something extraordinary. Sousa's geese called to a flock of wild geese as they flew over the farm and invited them to join in the feasting. Sousa told Barber that these wild geese were not just visiting, they were coming to stay. Barber could not understand why. Aren't they wired to fly south for the winter and north for the summer? But Sousa corrected him saying that geese are wired to find the most suitable conditions for thriving. His farm is the place they choose. 

We live in a time when agriculture is based upon eating what we want when we want. Sousa only harvests foie gras in the winter because that is when the geese naturally gorge. Historically, the Jews invented the method of gavage because Pharaoh tasted some of the Jewish foie gras and wanted it all year round. We are constantly inventing ways to send local foods farther, grow crops in unnatural seasons, or create superfoods in unnatural ways. We need to go back to the age-old method of acting inside of nature, not in spite of it.

Barber concludes his talk by pointing out that the most ecological choice is often the most ethical choice and also happens to produce the most delicious food. It is in the best interest of the earth and the people that live on it to adopt the agricultural ways of the past and create a sustainable system of living.