High-end infamy

Controversy and high prices are constants when it comes to foie gras, but as Laura Barnes explains, the discerning Middle Eastern diner just can't get enough of it.
High-end infamy
By Laura Barnes
Sat 24 Nov 2007 02:31 PM

Originally used by the ancient Egyptians to fatten up birds for royalty, the use of gavage; or force-feeding, is now one of the most controversial farming methods.

Using this technique on ducks and geese for the production of foie gras is still allowed in parts of Europe, the USA and the Far East, but has gradually been outlawed in several countries including Poland, Denmark Germany and the UK. In the USA, several cities have even gone so far as to ban the selling of foie gras within the city boundaries.

Foie gras is a gourmet food product and is placed in the same a as truffle and caviar.

With such controversy surrounding the production of foie gras, one would think that its popularity would wane; but chefs and diners cannot get enough of the dish, especially in the Middle East, where opulence and extravagance rule.

High-class fodder

"For me, foie gras is a gourmet food product and is placed in the same league as truffle and caviar," says Emiliano Bernasconi, restaurant chef at Quattros, Four Seasons Golf Club Dubai Festival City.

At a cost of between AED150-AED180 (US $41-$49) per kilo in the UAE, foie gras is certainly not an everyday food item, but its unique flavour and notoriety means it really is a favourite in restaurants.

Graham Kruse, Exchange Floor sous chef at The Fairmont Dubai, agrees that it is a high-end food item, and by selling more than 15 portions of foie gras each week-with starters costing around AED90-AED95 (US$25-26)-it can be a source of added profit for a busy business hotel outlet.

According to Kruse, with a "rich, buttery and delicate taste" foie gras can be served in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most traditional-and one of The Exchange Grill's signature dishes-is classic terrine of duck foie gras au torchon.

The terrine is made by first de-veining the liver, then soaking it in brandy, and baking it in the oven.

"This is a popular dish with our customers, as well as pan searing it," says Kruse.

"Personally I think that au torchon is the best way to bring out the dish's flavour, but pan searing is also a favourite. This gives a slightly more caramelised taste, but pan searing inevitably loses some of the flavour," he warns.

Served either hot or cold, Middle Eastern diners traditionally prefer foie gras to be served hot, but Bernasconi has also brought a rather different slant on how best to serve foie gras, from ravioli to a tuna and foie gras carpaccio.

"It may sound strange but I serve it as a sauce with beef fillet, shaved on top of food, and even as an ice cream," says Bernasconi.

"They are not typical dishes and sometimes it takes people a while to come around to the idea of foie gras ice cream, but once they try it they order it again and again. It is all about trying it for that first time," he adds.

Paying the price

The Fairmont primarily uses Barakat as its key supplier, They purchase around 30kg per month for the complete hotel operation. However, given the difficulties of getting on time delivery in the Middle East, The Fairmont also purchases fresh frozen foie gras.
At the smaller Four Seasons Golf Club Dubai Festival City, Emiliano uses only around 5kg per month and purchases only fresh liver. While the cost is higher for fresh liver, the quality is superior.

As with any meat, different cuts are available across a spectrum of grades. Foie gras is graded as either A, B, or C, with grade A typically the best for searing. Alongside this grading system, foie gras is also available in a variety of different forms; with foie gras entier-whole foie gras-the most expensive, as it is made from either one or two whole liver lobes.

Other varieties include bloc de foie gras, which is a fully cooked moulded block composed of no less than 98% foie gras; pate de foie gras and mousse de foie gras that must contain more than 50% foie gras; and also parfait de foie gras, which must be produced from no less than 75% foie gras.

Despite some European countries banning gavage and the selling of foie gras, worldwide production is still buoyant, with North Africa emerging as a new hotspot for rearing duck and geese, due to lower production costs and fewer regulations.

France however, still remains the leading producer and consumer of duck and goose foie gras, with more than 18,450 tons produced in 2005, accounting for approximately 78% of the total world production.

The remainder largely comes from Hungary, Bulgaria and the USA, as well as China and Morocco. And while Hungary is the largest exporter of foie gras across the globe, it is France that is seen as the bastion of foie gras production, with the majority of farms located in Perigord in the Dordogne, as well as Alsace and the Midi-Pyrenees region in the southwest of France.

"There is a lot of good quality foie gras available in the market now, but I still source mine from France as it offers the best quality," comments Bernasconi.

But with every luxury item there is a price to pay. Animal rights groups like Farm Sanctuary, Ban Foie Gras and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have voiced their concerns over the farming method.

PETA claim that the mortality rate of birds raised for foie gras can be as much as 20 times higher than birds that are raised normally, with gavage causing the birds' liver to grow up to more than 10 times its normal size.

Ethical campaigners also argue that birds are treated inhumanely, with many ducks unable to walk or move due to the excessive force feeding of corn. Farmers argue that this in nonsense-they could never sell a premium product if the geese were not well looked after and healthy.

However, to combat the bad press, one farmer is doing something different.

Located in the Badajoz province of Spain, Pateria de Sousa produces its foie gras by slaughtering geese before they migrate, as during this time they have naturally eaten more to create reserves during the winter months.

"We don't force feed the animals, they feed and live freely on our land," the farm's owner, Eduardo Sousa told the BBC earlier this year.

"The animals eat and eat and eat so that they'll be fat for winter, this is natural for them," he adds.

With these efforts to make the process more humane, foie gras may well become more popular than it already is, and perhaps even more accessible due to lower prices.

One thing seems set to remain though, in the Middle East it is a dish that most people are happy to buy, and chefs are happy to prepare. In order to maintain its popularity and high-standing among the high-end diners though, chefs need to constantly look at new ways of serving this most infamous of ingredients.

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