On the trail of foie gras

EWEN BELL
Last updated 05:00 21/01/2011
FREE RANGE: Geese at Ferme du Vignal. Seeing how they are bred and fed for foie gras may make the practice easier to swallow.
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FREE RANGE: Geese at Ferme du Vignal. Seeing how they are bred and fed for foie gras may make the practice easier to swallow.

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The picturesque valleys and hills along the Dordogne River in France are famous for their culinary richness, with winter truffles and farm-grown foie gras at the top of the shopping list. You can't go to a grocery store without passing a shelf full of foie gras varieties. Patisseries often use foie gras in place of butter on baguettes; fine providores stock small tins at prices upwards of €20 ($NZ34) each; and even the charcuteries offer delicate quantities for sale alongside their choice slices of meat.

Weekly markets take over these pretty rural towns, with farmers filling mediaeval streets with fresh goodies. Foie gras is here, too, sold alongside roasted walnuts, refined oils and whatever truffle products are available at that time of year. As a traveller in Dordogne, the presence of foie gras is overwhelming but also opportunistic. The farmers who raise the geese and extract the engorged liver fat are just a hillside away and they're ready to welcome strangers to the farm to look for themselves.

Throughout my travels in France, an uncomfortable question hovered in the back of my mind about the origins of foie gras and what happens to the geese in the process.

Taking the train from Paris, a traveller asked me, "Do you know what they do to those animals?" Actually, no. My cultural and geographical distance from France had left me with only a mental image of what might be happening.

Driving through the commune of Marquay, that all changed. As I approached Ferme du Vignal to take photos of the geese, the farmer invited me through for a closer look. Her name was Florence and though she didn't speak a word of English, she still spent the next half an hour walking me through the enclosures, visiting the barns and sharing every detail of how the geese live. And die.

Flocks of birds waddled around a yard of tall grass, cooling themselves in the shade of walnut trees. They gathered in gaggles at the water troughs, dipping their beaks to gulp before throwing their heads backwards to send the water down their throats.

Florence showed me into a little wooden barn, a creche where two-week-old chicks were milling about in soft hay and squeaking out their high-pitched chirps.

I figured that's where the tour would end but instead we made our way to another shed, where the tale of foie gras gets down to the gruesome business.

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Inside the barn was the feeding machine that measures the correct dose of maize and the pens that keep 10 geese in a small space for their last weeks. I was shown in graphic detail how they force-feed the birds. Before the demonstration, I felt a little sick, expecting the facts would turn me off foie gras forever. Instead, it revealed my imagination was more vivid than reality.

For sure, the geese are not happy to be chased into a corner and grabbed. They protest and hiss but after a moment of flurry they acquiesce, the feed is forced down and the show is over. Being chased and grabbed appeared more disturbing than the direct-to-gullet feeding. I wouldn't want it done to myself and I've no doubt the geese would rather skip it, too. Very little about farming livestock is charming when the end point arrives.

Yet, the experience proved disarming instead of alarming.

Florence walked me through the processing room where the birds are zapped with electricity to quickly kill them, then plucked and processed for their fats and meat. We moved on to the packing room where her children were glueing labels on to cans. School holidays turn into working bees when you live on a farm. We finished with a small tasting and a particularly memorable Bergerac with a sweet edge and long-lasting palate.

The wines of Dordogne have evolved to balance the fatty flavours from the farm and the two elements make a convincing culinary argument when served together.

I was won over by the foie gras farm and Florence's candid demonstration. I'm glad the birds get to wander the yard for their formative months and enjoy the outdoors. It was pointed out to me that geese grown for foie gras get to live twice as long as a chicken grown for breast meat and their milieu of walnut trees and open paddocks is quite different to that of chickens laying eggs at a battery farm.

I think if you're going to be a meat eater, you're obliged to learn about where it comes from and the same goes for geese and foie gras.

Vegetarians are not going to be happy for these foie gras geese, any more than they would be for the sheep grazing on a nearby hillside on their way to becoming lamb chops. No doubt there are less ideal farms in France and I haven't visited them all to offer definitive proof of the industry.

I do believe happy geese make the best foie gras, so the market rewards good farming practices.

At least now I can eat my entree in Sarlat and know exactly what preceded that small block of goose fat on my plate. I also know the experience is enhanced when you have the right aperitif to accompany the dish. I could certainly live without foie gras in my diet but now I can live with it.

Where to sample foie gras

Go straight to the source and visit a foie gras farm where tastings on site are matched with local wines. Visit the tourist office in Sarlat for a list of farms and phone ahead before visiting. The farm in this story is Ferme du Vignal, Marquay, ferme-du-vignal.com.

Cafe de la Riviere: Beynac is perfect for sunset and this restaurant is perfect for foie gras, with views of the river. La Bourg, Beynac, cafedelariviere.com.

La Maison des Chanoines: In the stunning town of Turenne this small but proud restaurant combines foie gras with truffles and balances the flavours to perfection. Rue Joseph Rouveyrol, Turenne, maison-des-chanoines.com.

Les Jardins de Marqueyssac: Open for lunch, this magnificently restored home in the commune of Vezac offers stunning views of the Dordogne River and nearby castles. marqueyssac.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of Rail Europe and Thai Airways International.

Trip notes

Getting there

Fast trains connect Brive-la-Gaillarde, Dordogne, and Paris twice daily and hire cars are available at the station during business hours. Rail passes give you four days of trains in a month for less than $NZ390. raileurope.co.nz.

Staying there

The town of Sarlat-la-Caneda is an ideal base for travels in the Dordogne, with very short driving distances between towns and foie gras on every corner. Logis Hotels is an excellent source for privately run auberges and charming hotels to suit a range of budgets; from €49 ($NZ82). logishotels.com.

More information

www.dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr, sarlat-tourisme.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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