by Trish Deseine
photo Helmut Newton.
Tolerable cruelty: going back to foie gras. November 2011
I gave up eating and cooking with foie gras in early 2007, as I was writing a series of golden-papered little books about luxurious ingredients. There were six of them, truffles, chocolate, lobster, caviar, champagne and of course, the smoother than smooth, duck liver disease.
Making ‘Gout de Luxe’ was possibly the most enjoyable working experience I have ever known. I immersed myself, and my willing friends, in these gorgeous ingredients over an entire winter, blissfully ignoring more conventional cookbook production methods. Recipe testing, photography and writing merged into several week-long cooking and eating festins. The chocolate and champagne chapters were shot in the loft I had then in Paris, with regular deliveries from the cave at La Grande Epicerie de Paris ensuring we were all pretty much, er, inoperative, from 11 am each day. The resulting photos were hilariously ‘artistic’( and, thankfully, mostly unpublished) as we grappled with frozen, bobbing blackberries and attempted to keep the bubbles bubbling for the camera (ie emptying and refilling the glasses) For the lobster chapter, we rented a cottage with a massive fridge – soon crawling with homards Bretons - near Cancale, chased sunsets, tides and rockpools across the Brittany coast and spent hours one evening dismantling homard en deux services at Olivier Roellinger’s wonderful ‘guest house’ le Château Richeux. We weren’t making the book, we were living it.
But it was the time spent near Périgueux at the height of truffle season, just after Christmas, which was most memorable. We rented a pretty cottage in the countryside – part of a truffle farm – with an enormous wood fire and a well equipped kitchen. Then we stocked up on foie gras, magrets and truffles from the gruesome, crack-of-dawn marché au gras in Périgueux and set about cooking, eating and photographing them, non-stop, for 5 days.
Unsurprisingly, it was not this heaven that dulled my taste for foie gras, but an ‘educational’ visit to a farm near Paris with my children. No amount of jolly euphemism about ‘the end of life’ could blot out the smell and sight of crated, bloated, panting ducks.
At that time, attitudes had started changing drastically worldwide about how secure and humane animal husbandry should be. On top of my disgust, I felt there was a lack of coherence in demanding good conditions for hens, cattle, sheep and pigs, yet all the while explaining away (with more than dubious ‘facts’) the ducks’ obvious ordeal. I stopped eating it, stopped using it in my recipes. It seemed logical, I was by no means actively campaigning – I simply felt a bit, well, queasy. I guess the decision was little more than a dilution of a tiny part of a serious ethical issue. I wondered, in the wake of it, what other sacrifices I could make in the name of kindness to animals.
And how many more? None. Nope, not one. I examined the labels, questioned my butchers more keenly, and came to the conclusion that in rural, conservative, US-phobic France, animals (at least the ones I would get to eat) still have it relatively good. We are lucky, here in France, to still have access to cheap, healthy food. Of course we do. I was alright, Jacques.
I must have mentioned my great relinquishment in an interview somewhere as a Guardian reporter phoned out of the blue and this piece appeared. Oliver Thring and I have long discussed the issue and my self-imposed ban, he wrote this about it, and it was when we were having dinner together in Paris, eating something altogether more reprehensible, that I started the slow swing back to my barbaric ways.
The thing is, foie gras is a such a versatile ingredient, adding instant glamour, richness and subtlety to a dish. Its range seems endless , you can poach, roast, sear, snack, melt or marinate it. It can soften and moisten mighty meat and game or beef up light, aromatic vegetables, cooked or not. It can stand up to the power of a black Périgord truffle, or dance with lemongrass. It’s wonderful as the star of the show raw (and grated like a condiment at Inaki’s), or mi-cuit in a traditional terrine with spices, fruits or chocolate, or fried and hot inside its caramelized crust served sweet or savoury with fleur de sel.
I kept coming across it in restaurants and at friends’ houses. For two or three years, I would give a polite (I hope) but flat, “no thanks,” explaining my reasons as succinctly as possible. If I was in French company, (particularly from the industry) I could expect a reaction ranging from being ridiculed to downright aggression. It was, frankly, very boring and tiresome for everyone and has certainly made me a whole lot more sympathetic towards the day to day abuse foodie conscientious objectors of all types experience.
And now, again, there’s half a lobe of foie gras sitting in my fridge. We had some last night, seared in a dry pan, with a very bloody onglet and fleur de sel and nothing else. Such a joyously appropriate thing to eat on Hallowe’en, watching zombie movies. It’s partly my shaky ethical reasons for stopping in the first place which have allowed this return, but mostly a slow disappearance of my physical queasiness as it kept appearing before me in restaurants. (Most recently at Akrame, delicately wrapped in spinach, bathing in a floral bouillon) And after all, as a cook in France, this is my job. It is limiting to shut off a whole territory of potential recipes.
Besides, (a truism, of course) but choosing to eat or shun foie gras is a privileged person’s problem. You do it or not- just be glad you have that choice and know that in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I feel it’s almost an insult to those, stranded somewhere in a US food desert, for me to even debate it. So, fully embracing the transgression which only adds to the pleasure, I’m going to shut up, eat, write about it and postpone any further discussion until I arrive at the pearly gates and see if the ducks are there too.