Monday, August 17, 2009

Foie Gras Farm

During our recent trip in the Dordogne, we visited one of the many foie gras farms in the area. This region is renowned for its foie gras, largely made from goose liver here (most duck foie gras is produced closer to home).

Foie gras translates to fatty liver. It is made by feeding the goose or duck large quantities of corn over a period of several weeks to fatten its liver. The liver is then prepared in several ways for eating. It is a delicacy, and in France an expensive treat enjoyed especially at Christmas-time. The production of foie gras has a bad rap from animal rights activists, that believe the feeding process is cruel. Their claims are not totally without merit, as there are many industrial foie gras plants in the world (notably in China and Romania), which are cruel (feeding tubes permanently tied down the animal’s throat). But the artisanal farms in France, and I assume also those in North America, are run with all the care in the world. I guarantee that the chickens (and their eggs) that you eat were treated much less humanely than the geese we saw.

Now for the interesting process. The farm we saw always has about 900 geese on hand: 300 babies in the warm barn, 300 geese less than six months of age that roam freely in fields, and 300 geese being fed corn to fatten up their livers. Ironically, the 300 free-range geese also spend their days eating. They eat the grass in their field until there is not a blade left. The farm always has several fields growing grass so that the geese can be moved to a new field once they have finished the grass in their current field.

Once it is time to be ‘force’ fed, the geese move into a special area in the barn. They are fed two to three times a day, each feeding lasting about 15 seconds per goose. A tube is inserted into their throat, and corn is released into it until the stomach is full. This feeding process is called la gavage. The same person feeds them every day to ensure that the feeding remains unstressful. They are fed like this for about six weeks, or until their liver is satisfactorily fattened (decided on an individual basis). The goose is then killed, and prepared into a variety of ways (foie gras, cassoulet, rillettes, confit, feathers for down, etc). The only parts not used are the feet and beak.

We were told that the gavage process takes advantage of the natural physiology of geese. They normally binge eat to fatten their livers before heading on their long migration flights. This fattens their livers to provide enough energy for the long journey. The fattening process is reversible: once they stop eating their livers return to normal size.

This farm is 100% family run. They grow the corn to feed the geese, and they make, can, and sell all their products. At the end of the tour we tasted their foie gras and rillettes, both of which were delicious. We bought a variety of products, which our December guests will be fortunate enough to enjoy with us.

Just a side note on the picture of Gilles with the food. He's eating a huge piece of foie gras mi-cuit (meaning quickly pan seared, it cost a mere 7 euros!), the pie has duck confit in it, the potatoes are cooked in duck fat, and you can pretty much rest assured that there is some kind of duck or goose fat in the beans as well. Surprisingly, the people from this region have the longest life expectancy in France!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Recent Road Trip: Caves, Castles, and Canoeing

We recently set out on a five-day road trip to check out some renowned areas of France that are actually quite close to home. The first region, the Dordogne or Perigord, is known for its beautiful river, picturesque villages, gastronomy (all things duck and goose, walnuts, truffles, cheese), and prehistoric cave art. Then we headed to the countryside in the Tarn region for a couple of relaxing days at a gastronomic bed and breakfast.

We canoed the Dordogne River, passing the cute villages of La Roque-Gageac, Castelnaud, and BĂ©nac. They are built into the rock cliffs, and each town has a castle dating from the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English. In the picture of me taken at the Castelnaud castle, there are replicas of the catapults that were used during the war. From the river below, the castles look very imposing as they are positioned high up on the rocky cliffs. The two & half hour canoe trip took us five hours! We floated for the first hour, stopped along the shore for a picnic, then stopped in La Roque-Gageac for an ice cream. Not to mention that Gilles did 90% of the paddling.

We visited two caves containing prehistoric art: Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume. The paintings in these caves are at least 15,000 years old. The artists painted mostly animals (horses, buffalo, bulls, reindeer) and symbols. Lascaux is the more famous cave, although the cave shown to visitors today is a replica of the original. After the original cave was discovered in 1940, so many people entered it that their body temperature and things they brought into the cave on their shoes aged the drawings more in twenty years than in the previous 15,000 years. They closed the cave and built a replica that is accurate to within a cm. The second cave we visited is the only cave containing polychromatic drawings open to visitors in the world. The number of daily visitors and group sizes are strictly regulated, so we were very fortunate to be able to get a glimpse of this amazing cave. Little is known of the people that painted these drawings: why did they do it? Why did they only paint animals? How did they create such realistic images in the dark cave, high up on slippery rocks? In all our travels, this is the oldest thing we have ever seen, and it was truly amazing.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss the foie gras farm that we visited. It was a very tasty and educational tour!