IT'S 8:30 AM, on a crisp autumn morning at Mariposa Farm in Plantagenet, a small agricultural town bordering Ontario and Quebec. Ian Walker has been up for three hours already doing the morning rounds of his 110-acre farm, which he operates alone. A herd of Berkshire pigs devours a breakfast of part-frozen squash as Tom the turkey — the “farm mascot” for more than 10 years — struts around an open field, along with a gaggle of geese quacking loudly in unison.
Mouth-watering aromas of bacon and maple syrup drift through the window of the kitchen as Walker fires up a giant outdoor smoker. “That’s for smoking the foie gras,” he explains. “You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve tried a good piece of smoked foie gras with your breakfast!”
Walker is the only farmer in Quebec, and one of only a handful in the world, trying to produce foie gras naturally. Rather than force-feeding his geese (a process called gavage, which is the typical method of producing the French delicacy of goose or duck liver), he simply supplies them with all the corn they can eat. He insists the animals eat enough voluntarily to fatten up their own livers, to later yield generous portions of foie gras.
Walker stumbled accidentally upon this method of producing foie gras when he sent his geese to be slaughtered and workers at the abattoir discovered the geese had fatty, yellow livers, only slightly smaller than those fattened by the force-feeding process. But although he’s experimenting with natural foie gras, Walker fully supports farmers who adopt the traditional practice of force-feeding, and insists, “It’s nowhere near as cruel as these animal rights groups make out.”
Of all the delicacies enjoyed by gastronomes around the world, foie gras is undoubtedly one of the most coveted — and controversial. Animal rights activists argue the process of force-feeding (which involves inserting a metal tube down the animals’ throats and feeding them a mix of ground corn and water for around two weeks until their livers are engorged) is intolerably cruel, and demand that the product be banned altogether.
But producers in Quebec accuse protestors of being misinformed, and insist their animals enjoy a good quality of life. Walker points out that the force-feeding process takes just a few seconds a day over the short fattening period, and that farmers have taken steps to make the procedure as comfortable as possible by, for example, reducing the size of the nozzles inserted into the animals’ throats.
“Protestors always focus on how cruel force feeding is, but if they researched it properly, they’d find that isn’t actually the case,” Walker says. “Ducks don’t have a gag reflex like humans do. And they’ve conducted studies in France where they recorded the hormone levels of ducks to measure stress and found that ducks in the wild go through more stress looking for food and avoiding predators than farm ducks do.”
But arguments like these have done little to silence critics; foie gras is already banned in a dozen European countries, and in North America, political activists in cities like Chicago and L.A. are pushing for a complete ban on the industry by 2012. Celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter have added fuel to the anti-foie gras fire by scrapping the delicacy from their well-publicized menus.
Here in Quebec, where all of the foie gras in Canada and most of North America is produced, local animal rights groups are mounting pressure on the provincial government and workers within the industry to adopt an outright ban as well.
Lucas Solloway has been working with the Concordia Animal Rights Association (C.A.R.A.) for the past four years, and has been actively involved in the organization’s ongoing campaign against the production of foie gras.
“We wanted to tackle this issue because it’s happening in our own backyard,” Solloway explained. “Quebec is one of the biggest producers of foie gras internationally, and what we’ve seen and heard about this industry is just gruesome.
“We’re working to put pressure on these industries, to change laws and to educate foie gras consumers,” he added. “Because if the average consumer knew they were eating fatty diseased liver of a tortured bird, they probably wouldn’t be eating it.”
Two years ago. C.A.R.A. teamed up with Global Action Network (G.A.N.), another Montreal-based animal rights group, to infiltrate three of the biggest foie gras producers in Quebec, in an effort to expose the cruelty they say is commonplace in this industry.
“We managed to gather around 100 hours of footage using hidden cameras,” G.A.N. founder and activist Andrew Plumley remembered. “And virtually everything we documented at all levels of these foie gras farms — from the hatcheries, transport, feeding, slaughter — we uncovered all sorts of atrocities that were happening routinely, on a regular basis.
“We have video evidence of the ducks being kicked, beaten and kept in cramped, filthy cages,” Plumley said. “Everything we found illustrates the fact that workers within this industry are de-sensitized to the suffering of animals. Cruelty is endemic and to our minds, the only way to stop it is to get rid of this industry altogether — it’s not about regulating it, it’s about getting rid of it.”
The producers responded that these were isolated incidents, taken out of context, and that they aren’t representative of the foie gras industry. Ian Walker is quick to support his colleagues, agreeing that cases of farmers mistreating their animals are “the exception rather than the rule”, and that while animal cruelty exists in farming, it isn’t unique to the foie gras industry.
Walker believes the foie gras industry is an easy target for protestors because it’s relatively new and poorly organized compared to other agri-business industries. He urges animal rights activists to consider how difficult it is for independent farmers to make a living before condemning the entire industry and “jeopardizing peoples’ livelihoods.”
“It’s hard enough for small family farmers to survive without these protestors crawling up our asses and making life difficult for us,” Walker says. “And let me tell you, if I were to secretly come into your house and take pictures of the one time you spanked your child, or the one time your garbage was overflowing, I wouldn’t be getting a fair picture. Yes, sometimes on farms there are things that aren’t very pretty, but that’s sort of how farming is.”
G.A.N. later released a documentary of their findings over the Internet in an attempt to rally support for their cause. But despite the widespread circulation it achieved, foie gras remains as popular as ever in Quebec. The province is home to an industry that produces around 8,500 duck livers a week, up from just a couple of hundred a decade ago. And what was once seen as a luxury indulgence reserved for special occasions is now readily available in supermarkets, butchers and high-end restaurants throughout the province.
World-renowned restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal is one of the most popular and foie-gras-friendly restaurants in Canada. Chef and owner Martin Picard has built his reputation on making extravagant ingredients like foie gras affordable and accessible in everyday cooking.
As one of the most outspoken advocates of foie gras in the food industry, Picard finds a way to feature the French delicacy in almost every item on his menu: stuffed in lobster, layered on pig’s leg, seared on buckwheat pancakes and even in his heart-clogging version of Quebec’s famous fast-food staple, poutine.
Chef Vincent Dion Lavallée has been cooking alongside Picard in the Pied de Cochon kitchen for the past three years. The best thing about working at the internationally acclaimed restaurant, he says, is working for a chef who supports local agriculture and promotes home grown, seasonal and ethical products.
“Martin [Picard] visits hundreds of farms and producers, to source products where we know the animals have been treated humanely and raised as naturally as possible,” Lavallée said. “We never use anything processed or factory-farmed — for ethical reasons, but also because animals that have been treated well taste better when you eat them.
“All of our foie gras comes from Palmex Farm in Marieville [Quebec],” he added. “I’ve been there many times and the reason we keep going back is because we know the animals are treated well; they’re kept in the open air and they’re fed 100 per cent natural corn so at the end of the day, everybody wins — the ducks are happy and they produce a top-quality product.”
Lavallée expains that Au Pied de Cochon follows a ‘snout-to-tail’ approach to cooking, which means that no part of the animal is considered too humble to eat.
“We waste absolutely nothing here — to honour the animal, you should cook and eat every last part of it,” he said. “With foie gras, we’ll trim off the best parts for pan searing or whatever, and then use all the off-cuts for terrine or for the cromesquis (a deep-fried, breaded foie gras amuse-bouche; the chefs pan-fry the ‘unwanted’ parts of the liver until they reduce to a liquid — a taste explosion that coats your entire palette with delicious foie gras flavour).
Lavallée suggests people who have an issue with foie gras simply because of “the stigma around force-feeding” should visit foie gras farms for themselves, or watch the Au Pied de Cochon documentary ‘Durs a cuire’, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at the farming and restaurant industries in Quebec. He believes animal rights groups and foie gras critics should focus their attentions on some of the larger agri-business industries that he claims are far worse.
“People eat beef and chicken every day without knowing where it comes from,” he said. “Because it’s not an issue that’s talked about like foie gras, everyone takes for granted that the meat is healthy or that the animals are somehow treated well.
“Yet foie gras is criticized, even though it’s not something we eat every day. And ironically, foie gras farms — at least in Quebec — are small, family operations; they’re not churning out animals in factories, which is how most of the meat in North America is made. If everyone could try local, ethically-raised meat and see how it compares with the factory-farmed junk, they’d never go back.”
This morning, I’m discovering just how good local, ethical food can be at Mariposa Farm, where Ian Walker’s foie gras is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. I happily devour a delicious, fist-sized portion of smoked foie gras, two rashers of bacon, a couple of freshly-laid, free-range eggs, homemade beans and fried bread, all drizzled with maple syrup from a neighbouring farm and washed down with a strong cup of coffee.
As if that weren’t enough for breakfast, Walker insists I try a slice of his slightly spicy terrine, infused with Piment d’Espelette (France’s only native pepper from the southern town of Espelette, which is commonly used in Basque cooking) and served simply with toasted baguette ends. Just as I’m thinking I can’t eat another bite, he whips out a frying pan to demonstrate how to cook the perfect piece of pan-seared foie gras.
“Simple is always best,” he tells me. “Get your pan nice and hot, sear it for about two minutes on each side and serve it with something sweet, like roasted apples or figs. I promise you, you won’t go wrong.”
We eat ours rustic-style, straight from the pan. It’s so melt-in-your-mouth buttery and rich, I realize no amount of controversy could put me off this delicious delicacy. Why deny myself something that tastes so good, especially when the animals are raised on farms like this one?
Much of the foie gras debate is fuelled by shocking, gruesome images of ducks and geese being force-fed until their livers explode. These images are meant to evoke a visceral sense of repulsion in people used to buying their meat in pristine, plastic packages at the local supermarket (which, sadly enough, applies to most of us). But the harsh reality is that raising and killing animals for human consumption isn’t a pristine process; if people choose to eat meat, they must decide how much suffering they’re willing to accept.
Quebec is one of the few places in the world where it’s easy for people to educate themselves about the quality of the food they eat, where it comes from and how the animals are treated. And with such a large and varied selection of products being grown and raised in the province right now, it’s easy and fairly affordable to find organic ingredients and meats from animals that have been treated humanely.
“Small local farmers like me are trying to produce food in an ethical and sustainable way,” Walker insists. “But because it’s early in the development of the local food movement, people don’t know enough about it.
“If you are somebody that’s concerned with local food and helping local agriculture, then it’s very easy for you right now, especially in Quebec, to buy local ingredients,” he says. “You can also start to grow your own food, or become a farmer yourself and join us. But if those aren’t your choices, you really have no right to complain about the way that we do things — unless you want to jump on board to help change it.”