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Much ado about foie gras

No longer a luxury food item, the no-vegetarian cuisine has become the subject of a global campaign, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2008 12:51 IST

It's just typical isn't it? The moment we begin to get used to a fancy food item that was previously unavailable in India or much too expensive for us to consume tn prices came down, the West imposes a ban.

Take foie gras, for example. Until about a decade ago, most of us regarded it as the sort of expensive fancy-schmancy sort of food that we would never learn to pronounce, let alone eat.

And then suddenly, around four years ago, it started appearing on Indian menus (at hotels and stand-alone restaurants) with a startling regularity What's more: it wasn't even particularly expensive.

And now, they've banned it in California (though the ban does not come into effect till 2012) and there is a growing demand for a total ban all over America. (But not in Europe where the people demanding the ban are simply laughed at by law-makers.)

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. If you've McT missed the articles on the great foie gras controversy (or even the piece I did on these pages on the joys of foie gras), then a few explanations may be in order. Though the name sounds fancy, foie gras is essentially a poultry liver.

It's not so dit^ferent to the chicken livers that we sometimes pulverise into pate except for a couple of important things. The first is that chickens can't produce foie gras, only migratory birds can. And the second that it is no ordinary poultry liver but one that is exceptionally fatty (which is why it does not have the strong organ taste of other livers and remains the only glandular meat that I can eat).

The principle behind foie gras is simple enough. When a bird migrates, it flies severa1hundred miles before stopping for lunch or dinner It sustains itself by gorging wildly before it sets out on its journey.

This food supply is converted into fat and stored in the liver In the process, the liver can increase in weight from four ounces to a pound and a half The ancient Romans discovered that if they hunted migratory birds (when they were actually migrating) their livers would be fat and silky and nothing like ordinary livers.

The demand for engorged livers led Roman farmers to fatten birds - even when they were not migrating with grain. When the livers expanded, the birds were slaughtered and the foie gras industry was born. For over 2000 years, foie gras farming has been conducted in roughly the same way with only a few changes.

Modern Italians gave up on fattening livers and the task fell to the French who settied on the goose as the ideal bird for foie gras (which means 'fat liver' in French) and fed geese (usually in the region around Strasbourg) with corn - a feed that was not available to the Romans because America had not yet been discovered.

It was the virtual French monopoly of foie gras production that turned it into a luxury food in the same price range as caviar or truf- fles. But then, the French lost the plot. Because foie gras was so expensive and goose livers were tender, the French sold relatively litt1e fresh foie gras. Instead they mashed it up and mixed it with butter for pate de foie gras or used it in terrines. These were tasty enough but lacked the flavour of proper foie gras.

Then, farmers in other parts of Europe discovered that duck foie gras tasted remarkably like the goose version. Except that it was much cheaper Not only are there more ducks than there are geese but you can use the other parts of the duck (the legs, the breast etc.) much more easily than you can use goose meat.

In the 1970s, poultry farmers bred the Moulard duck, a cross between the Muscovy and the Pekin breeds. The Moulard gives you a firm liver that is easy to cook with. So no need to mash it into pate or turn it into terrine.

Over the next two decades, farmers all over the world started breeding the Moulard, largely for its liver In the US, the pioneers were Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York state and soon many of the newly-liberated countries of Eastern Europe began producing Moulard foie gras. A few years ago, the Chinese entered the market.

The consequences were predictable. The demand for expensive, fragile goose foie gras from Strasbourg died down and the world started eating Moulard foie gras which was much cheaper and did not cost much more than a duck breast or a confit leg. That's why you see foie gras on virtually every menu in London, Paris or New York.

There's foie gras sushi, Thai-style foie gras with tamarind, Chinese foie gras with pineapple and I reckon it's only a matter of time before we get a foie gras shami kabab. Because foie gras still tastes as good as it always did and is one fourth the price it used to be, the demand has grown to an all-time high.

There are still snobs who say that duck foie gras cannot compare with Strasbourg goose and the French have tried to create a champagne-like hysteria ("only sparkling wines produced in Champagne are the real thing"), but nobody is buying this nonsense.

It's a funny thing but as long as foie gras was a luxury item, available only to the rich, animal rights crusaders did not give a damn about the fat geese of Strasbourg.


Read more Vir Sanghvi columns:

Tracking the

bhutta

story


Cultural Revolution


The Great Hotel Scam


Kathmandu diary


Rude Food photo gallery