Foie Gras is ‘jewel in culinary heritage’, produced humanely, has nutritional benefits!


Yesterday Rougié, the world’s largest producer of foie gras, introduced a number of us to their method of foie gras production, dispelled all myths of the ‘cruelty’ of this production, and spoilt us with a wonderful Chef’s Table lunch at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

Guy de Saint-Laurent, Directeur: Commercial Export of Rougié Sarlat, flew in from France to explain to Chef Rudi Liebenberg from the Mount Nelson’s Planet Restaurant, Chef Dylan Laity of Aubergine, and Chef Darren Badenhorst from Grande Provence how duck foie gras is produced.  The company specialises in foie gras supply to the restaurant industry, and calls itself the ‘Chef’s Foie Gras’.  We were told that foie gras is one of the oldest food products, having been developed in Egypt 5000 years ago, the Pharaohs already force fattening wild birds at that time.  For their long journeys to other parts of the world in winter, the birds naturally overfeed to create a natural layer of fat around their liver, for their long flights, doubling their weight. The first foie gras recipes emanate from Rome, and were based on geese livers. Now 80% of the world’s production comes from France, with another 15 % being produced in Spain, Belgium, Japan, and the USA.  With the introduction of corn from America to France, the production of foie gras was revolutionised, in being used to force feed the ducks and geese.  Foie gras is produced from Moulard ducks, a cross between Muscovy and Pekin ducks.  Up to 98% of all foie gras is made from duck, taking 12 weeks to breed and 10 days to be fattened, while geese need 14 weeks breeding time and 21 days of fattening.  Duck foie gras is more affordable therefore, and tastes better, Guy said.  Its preparation has been mainly pan-fried or seared in the past, but Rougié is working on guiding chefs to find more uses for it. The company has recently set up the L’Ecole Du Foie Gras, teaching chefs the art of foie gras usage.

We were shown a video of how duck are fed a boiled corn ‘mash’ with a tube which goes into their crop, the process called ‘gavage‘.  This process takes 3 minutes, and is done once a day over the last 12 days of the duck’s life.  Vets visit the foie gras farms, and confirmed that ducks are ‘anatomically pre-disposed to be force fed’,  having a long neck, and that there is ‘no indication of stress’ to the ducks, a study showed.  The quality of the treatment of the ducks is reflected in the quality of the foie gras that is produced.  Rougié exports foie gras to 120 countries around the world, either raw, in cans, or flash frozen, the latter having a taste and texture ‘as good as fresh’. The company is a co-operative of about 700 duck farmers, foie gras being one of the products they make.

Foie gras has nutritional benefits, containing Vitamins B, C, and E.  A slice of foie gras has 260 Kcal, compared to a hamburger having 275 Kcal, and a pizza 600 Kcal.  It has good fat similar to that in olive oil, and protects the heart.  It is a food that can be adapted to the food traditions of the world, going well with the sweet, sour, and acidity in ingredients.  The Japanese are even making foie gras sushi, and the Chinese are making foie gras dumplings for Dim Sum.

While we were listening to the presentation, Chef Rudi’s team was busy preparing a foie gras feast for us, a nine-course lunch of small portions, to demonstrate the diversity of foie gras.    Chef Rudi’s brief to his team was to do him and the foie gras proud in the dishes that they created for this unique lunch. Three foie gras canapés were served with Villiera Tradition Brut NV, a terrine with beetroot, a macaroon, and a whipped foie gras torchon.   We discussed the reaction to foie gras, and that the state of California has banned its use in restaurants, despite foie gras being USDA approved.  Restaurants in the state wish to reverse the ban through legal action.  Guy said that the negative reaction comes from foie gras being seen to be for the well-to-do, making it elitist, the gavache method of feeding, and the love for comic characters such as Daffy and Donald Duck.

We started with frozen shaved foie gras, which was served with pine nuts and litchi, a  fresh surprise combination of ingredients, which Assistant Sommelier Farai Magwada paired with Bellingham’s The Bernard Series Chenin Blanc 2011.  Guy told us that he has chefs which visit restaurants around the world, especially to those far away from France, to educate and excite chefs about the preparation of foie gras. Last week Guy and Sagra Foods, the importers of the Rougié foie gras, had hosted similar lunches at The Westcliff with Chef Klaus Beckmann, and at The Saxon with Chef David Higgs, of whom Guy said that his work was two star Michelin quality, having been more classic in his foie gras usage.  Foie gras served with fresh apple, apple chutney, on an oats streusel, was paired with Spier Private Collection Chardonnay 2007.

I asked Guy about cookbooks about foie gras, and he told me that three have been written to date, one produced for Rougié, another done by Chef Nobu of the restaurant group by the same name, and the third by Beijing restaurant Da Dong. Given that Rougié was not prescriptive about how the foie gras should be served at its South African lunches, it seemed a good idea to develop a compilation of the dishes served, perhaps even including those lying ahead for Guy in Mauritius and Reunion.  An indian touch came through with foie gras and curried banana being sandwiched between two poppadom crisps, served with a fresh Solms-Delta Koloni 2010. A fun dish was pairing foie gras with popcorn and chicken breast, which was paired with Jordan Chameleon 1995.  As if we had not eaten enough already, we had a small palate cleanser, being duck confit with artichoke and mash.

We moved to fish, for which we were served fish knives, for hake cured with lemon and lemon grass, served with foie gras spuma and grilled melon, and paired with Cederberg Bukettraube 2011.    Guy explained that sous vide was invented for foie gras, and has since been adapted for use for other foods.  He also told me that French chefs predominantly used foie gras in terrines, but since Rougié has started marketing their products, and running their chefs’ courses, they are seeing it put to a greater number of creative uses. The beef, marinated mushrooms, and foie gras emulsion was paired with L’Omarins Optima 2006.  We talked about Chef Rudi’s support of Farmer Angus at Spier, buying his free-range meats, and having guinea fowl and turkey bred for his restaurant.

The Mount Nelson’s creative pastry chef Vicky Gurovich has just returned from a stage at Chef Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir in Great Milton, and visited Valrhona in Paris.  Her dessert creation of a foie gras, Valrhona chocolate and toffee terrine served with hazelnuts was the pièce de résistance. It was paired with Nederburg Eminence Noble Late Harvest 2009.

Sagra Foods was established in 1994, and operates from Cape Town, but distributes a range of exclusive foods and wines nationally, and even into Southern Africa, planning to make this country a hub of distribution of its fine foods into Africa, Darryn Lazarus said.  They commenced with Italian products, but decided to focus and specialise on premium products such as truffle oils, truffle butters, and many more, to make these products more affordable for local chefs.  Darryn said they are the ‘pioneers in specialty ingredients’, using wholesalers like Wild Peacock to offer chefs a single source of supply.  They import products ‘that make a difference’ from France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Australia, and the USA. So, for example, they sell El Bulli’s Texturas range, being the technical elements which once world best Chef Ferran Adria uses in his molecular gastronomy; De Cecco pasta from Italy; Vilux French mustards and vinegars; Borde dried mushrooms; Belberry jams, sauces, syrups, and vinegars; pastry cases with an 8 month shelf life; Australian Massel beef, chicken and vegetable stocks which are kosher, halaal, and gluten-free; and Tea Forte, the original designers of the tea pyramid, with such award-winning tea flavours as Blueberry Merlot and Lemon Sorbet.

The Mount Nelson was praised by Guy for its playful and less classic interpretation of the foie gras challenge, and he liked how the structure and taste of the foie gras was brought to the fore with the ingredients used by Chef Rudi’s chefs.  It was a most informative, once-in-a-lifetime lunch highlight, with excellent food, paired with a amazing range of wines, good company, and hosted in a special venue inside the sixty year old Mount Nelson kitchen.  Merci beaucoup!

Sagra Food & Wine Merchants, 10 Flamingo Crescent, Lansdowne, Cape Town. Tel (021) 761-3360.  Twitter: @SagraFoodsZA

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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7 replies on “Foie Gras is ‘jewel in culinary heritage’, produced humanely, has nutritional benefits!”

  1. In this day and age it is mind boggling that people are still defending and attempting to justify the abomination that is foie gras.

    Force-feeding results in steatosis of the liver, (hepatic lipidosis) a condition in which large fat globules accumulate in the liver cells to an extent never seen in any normal healthy birds. This condition is considered pathological by most animal welfare experts.

    Health and welfare problems in force-fed birds include, but are not limited to: Discomfort, pain and injuries, with the possibility of secondary infection, due to the repeated insertion of the feeding tube; Liver structure and function is severely altered and compromised; The enlarged liver causes discomfort and malaise and forces the legs outwards so that the birds have difficulty standing and their natural gait and ability to walk are severely impaired, if they are not caged; Increased incidence of bone fractures and liver lesions; Increased incidence of respiratory disorders.

    It is astounding that anyone can consider a product that is a diseased organ, healthy! There are non animal, healthy fats to protect the heart and plenty of sources of the vitamins mentioned. It is insulting to consider anyone eats foie gras for the potential of vitamins! A protein found in foie gras can accelerate a potentially deadly disease process known as amyloidosis that occurs in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and tuberculosis.

    If these birds gorge as the pro-gavage people would have one believe, why the need to force feed? Might it be that the birds would never consume the amounts force fed, as this would be antithetical to their health and well being? They naturally feed to swell their livers to perhaps twice the usual size, and this would be worked off in flight. The birds used for foie gras are not migratory birds, so they would not gorge!

    The argument that birds are ‘pre-disposed’ to being force fed due to their long necks beggars the question – are these people seriously suggesting Nature has designed the birds such in order that we may abuse them so? Well then, we may expect force fed giraffe on the menu, using that logic!

    Herewith information from France on Rougiè: Foie gras labelled “Rougié” is produced by Euralis, a French company and world largest foie gras producer.

    “We investigated several foie gras farms under contract with Euralis and we can testify that their farms are typical industrial foie gras operations : ducks caged in tiny wire-frame cages so small they can not move at all, in dark buildings, force-fed by a hydraulic or pneumatic pump twice a day during 2 weeks leading to a massive weight gain, usual health disorders and pathologies of force-fed birds as shown by high mortality rates, etc.

    This video was shot in 2008 in 3 Euralis farms where you can see the poor state of these birds:
    Google translation:

    We interviewed (in French) a former foie gras farmer who worked under contract with Euralis, force-feeding ducks for them. He explains what birds have to bear:
    Google translation :

    Does one really assume that foie gras producers are going to acknowledge cruelty and suffering when they see birds as a mere commodity? They are in essence, nothing more than common factory farmers, despite the hype of a ‘gourmet’ product.

    European Scientific Committee on Health and Animal Welfare’s 1998 report, which concluded that “Whilst the domestic goose might well be adapted to store food before migration, it is less likely that a cross between the domestic duck and the Muscovy duck, the Mulard, has such potential for food.”

    The foie gras industry also defends their production methods by claiming it is a long-held tradition. However, ducks and geese fattened with figs in olden times were not forced to endure living inside dark warehouses in cramped and dirty wire cages with little or no water and force-fed with wide, inflexible and non-lubricated pipes.

    Given that 14 countries have so far outlawed the production of foie gras due to cruelty, despite the obvious financial gains, says a great deal. This includes Israel, formerly a significant foie gras producer.

    Foie gras remains the definition of the worst excesses of human greed and self indulgence, for fleeting taste, regardless who may suffer.

  2. Sagra Food and Wine Merchants are the exclusive and proud importers of Rougié Foie Gras into South Africa. There are a number of inaccuracies and plenty of emotions in the comment above, but I believe that discussion is positive and can only result in an educated consumer, with a choice, free of harassment, which is something we can all strive for.

    Please note that my comments are only limited to the production and processes of Rougié, and its holding company Euralis Gastronomie.

    I would just like to highlight a few things: –

    Whilst Hepatic Steatosis is in fact a pathological condition in mammals, including humans, this is not the case with birds. To equate a human pathology with a migratory bird completely disregards the obvious physiological differences between the species.

    With humans, Hepatic Steatosis occurs as a response to various forms of inherited or acquired metabolic disorders and is most frequently secondary to alcoholic intoxication (cirrhosis) and is not reversible after a certain stage.

    Steatosis in ducks does not result in damaged or destroyed cells because degenerative conditions such as necrosis or cirrhosis never occur. Liver function remains normal as tests have shown that insulin and glucose levels remain within healthy ranges. Unlike human fatty livers, foie gras does not exhibit any macroscopic lesions. Lipids for example, store differently in Steatosis that is of a pathological rather than nutritional origin. In pathological Steatosis, one would expect to see centrolobular lipid accumulation, which is not observed in foie gras production.

    Very importantly, Steatosis in foie gras is completely reversible. Should the fattening be stopped, there will be a spontaneous fasting of 3 to 4 days, where after eating commences. The liver returns to its initial composition within 2 weeks.

    Stress levels in birds are gauged through the measurement of corticosterone blood levels. Clinical experimentation has shown that fattening through gavage does not induce any significant increase in plasma corticosterone levels kept in individual cages. There was a slight increase when using group pens, however this was only in the very first instance, and this was deemed to be due to being held (increased sense of danger with other birds in the pens) and not owing to gavage. A similar conclusion was also attained after recording heart levels.

    The presence of pain can be attained through the monitoring of the visceral nervous system. Neural activation indicating the presence of pain signals were never detected in the sensory visceral brain centres of fattened ducks.

    Panting in ducks, where frequency is increased by the end of the gavage process, is often misinterpreted as an indicator of discomfort. Panting originates from a thermo-regulatory reflex. Like dogs, birds have no sweat glands and their capacity to eliminate extra heat through contact with the air is limited by the insulating properties of their plumage. Thus they open their beaks and pant to eliminate the latent heat associated with water losses.

    Avian physiology and anatomy is completely different with that of humans and therefore one cannot compare the reaction by humans to birds. Humans can only ingest small quantities of food at a time, as the human oesophagus allows for very little distention. Unlike humans, the duck oesophagus is not only flexible, but is also not connected to the stomach. And as the duck oesophagus is not linked to the trachea, the duck cannot suffocate during the process. With the opening of the trachea being situated under the tongue, ducks breathe normally during gavage. Gavage lasts a matter of seconds and the feed is inserted directly into the duck’s crop. During the following hours the feed is slowly broken down through the gizzard.

    The Moulard duck is a cross between the female Pekin and male Muscovy duck. The process of genotype selection and hybrid species is as old as animal domestication itself. The modern foie gras producers have taken advantage of the capacity of some genotypes to optimally respond to gavage by a large and rapid increase in lipid synthesis and storage in the liver without signs of pathology or morbidity.

    As the world’s leading producer of foie gras, Rougié and Euralis Gastronomie are committed to ensuring the safe-guard of a gastronomic tradition that has existed since the Egyptian Pharaohs. Unlike many of their competitors, Rougié and Euralis Gastronomie control the entire supply chain and thus the entire company is committed to ensuring a healthy bird… as without a healthy bird, one cannot achieve a quality product.

  3. Darryn, the information on hepatic lipidosis is from vets, and therefore one would assume to be accurate. According to Dr Andre Menache, (Past President of Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine (UK) and general manager of the Federation of Animal Protection Societies in Israel, and instrumental in launching a Supreme Court Action that led to the ban on the force feeding of geese in Israel, the world’s third largest exporter of foie gras)”Any method that achieves the aim of swelling the liver is going to entail cruelty,” The case was won, Dr Menache said, by basing it on actual autopsies of birds who had been force-fed to prove the damage to their digestive system, throat and other organs. I note a lack of comment of the video evidence. We shall have to agree to disagree on this issue.

  4. In a case like this, I tend to favour the expert evidence of those who do not base their careers and livelihood on perpetuating the acts of cruelty in question. Rougié, like many other foie gras producers, have engaged their marketing machine in an attempt to paint themselves as a caring brand, in an industry condemned for cruelty. It only fools the selfish or wilfully gullible.

  5. Toni, my comments above were based on research done by a number of highly qualified and independent scientists. I am more than happy to send you their international published and recognised papers if you wish.

    With regards to Israel production, as I stated above, I import the brand Rougié and can thus only comment on their operations.

    Concerning your video, I decided not to comment on it as not only has it been sensationalised, but it is out of date and not in-line with current production.

    You have also placed a major focus on the apparent high mortality. As you are no doubt aware, there is mortality within all livestock production… would you care to share the mortality rates of, perhaps chicken production vs Rougié foie gras?

    Dave, unfortunately the foie gras industry is a very soft target. The industry is very much smaller than the other meat producers and thus does not have the marketing power with which to engage with the highly financed animal rights organisations. Furthermore, as foie gras is deemed to be an elitist ingredient, there is much opposition to it. In addition to this, a very significant portion of people that share your sentiments do not understand gavage and thus are not able to make a fully balanced decision. In my experience of working with Rougié and their marketing department, their “machine” does not attempt to paint themselves as anything… instead they focus on preparing a master product and educating both the general public and chefs on the actual, non-sensationalised production.

  6. Darryn, I think it is disingenuous to paint the foie gras industry as the little guy vs. the all powerful, ignorant animal rights organisations, hell-bent on sensationalising benign production methods. The French foie gras industry in particular is well resourced and has for over 10 years been funding “independent” research, attempting to legitimise their practices. The dubious pro-foie gras findings of the French INRA in particular are often touted, but the conflicts of interest are obvious, as are the sudden contradictions in their cruelty findings after funding from the foie gras industry commenced. It is all very reminiscent of the tobacco industry. As for jealousy being a factor i.e. the common man vs. “elitist” producers, I find this a stretch. It once again tries to paint the foie gras industry as a victim, which is quite ironic.

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