Traveling in our rental car from Switzerland into France, Jan and I spent our first night in France in the tiny village Gevrey-Chambertin in the Burgundy region outside of Beaune. Our room at Hôtel les Grands Crus overlooked a beautiful vineyard, and in the early evening, we walked into “town” to tour the cellars at winemaker Phillippe Leclerc. Sampling several wines (and buying a few to take home) and touring the extensive cellars brought us right up to our 8:30 dinner reservation at Chez Guy, a restaurant that came highly recommended by both our B&B host and Rick Steve’s guide book (and it also happened to be the only restaurant in town open for dinner).
While Jan and I didn’t understand much on the menu, we could pick out “foie gras,” and I did my best with some words I could make out from my knowledge of Spanish. We ordered wine and picked a few other items in addition to the foie gras, figuring that we would just be surprised with whatever came out (though we realize this attitude only works with an open mind—and without a pre-set list of dietary and/or meat restrictions).
After the bread and wine, the first course came out and I got my first surprise. I knew the dish I ordered was made of pork, but I hadn’t realized it would be a pork terrine. I was initially scared of the chilled slice colored with beautiful swirls of pink and green, but it was delicious—a great opening for the meal to come. With Jan enjoying his foie gras across the table, it was time for me to finally taste it.
Foie gras translates literally into “fat liver,” and it is produced from the livers of geese or ducks. In what many to be consider inhumane treatment of animals, the birds are force-fed until their livers become enlarged to 10 times their normal size. Foie gras, however, is an ancient delicacy with roots dating back to the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans.
I never tasted foie gras before I went to France, but after my first bite, I can see why foie gras has such fanatics—it is a very unique food. With foie gras, you do so much more than “taste” it. The texture and richness of it makes it an entire experience, a unique sensation for your mouth as your tastebuds take in this richness and the unique texture practically dissolves in your mouth.
My description to Jan over the dinner table was, “it’s like eating a stick of butter, times ten.”
The rest of our dinner was amazing, as was the wine (locally produced, of course!), and for dessert I had the best crème brûlée that I’ve ever tasted. The night encapsulated the experience of summer dining in Europe—we sat outside in beautiful weather, our dinner lasted more than three hours (very easy to do when it doesn’t get dark until 10 p.m.!), and with happy, full bellies, we strolled back to our hotel.
The next day, we traveled to Reims and Épernay to drink Champagne in the birthplace of the bubbly beverage. Later in the day, we arrived in Paris, where we met my friend Emily and at dinner that night, ordered foie gras again. A few days later at our friend’s wedding in Vouvray, we ate an appetizer of fried foie gras, which was quite a delicious morsel.
After Jan and I spent a few days in the Loire Valley, we didn’t want to head back to our final destination of Zurich the same way that we had come, so I looked for a good detour. While it added some extra time to our journey back to Switzerland, we decided to head to the Dordogne region in southwestern France. Here, we experienced foie gras in the area that is known for producing it (and where they’re also known for another famous French delicacy: truffles). I consulted our guide book and found a place we could tour to see the foie gras process in action.
Me, Jan, and several other visitors gathered for the daily 6:30 p.m. tour at Elevage du Bouyssou, a small goose farm run by husband and wife Denis and Nathalie. Nathalie took us around to different parts of the property where we first met the baby geese, and then the teenagers, each age group kept separately from the others.
Nathalie explained that the geese live on this farm from when they arrive as babies, up until just under 1 year old. Here, they are free to roam the farm on their own to eat grass and corn.
On the last part of the tour, we went into the barn to witness the force-feeding, or la gavage, as it is called in French. During the last weeks of the their lives, the geese are force-fed corn three times a day by Denis, who uses a machine with a long tube at the end to feed the geese. Nathalie explained that this process is made possible by the fact that the geese do not have a gag reflex, something that helps them fatten up before their migrations south if they lived in the wild.
Seeing la gavage was not as bad as I expected (I was expecting to run away, horrified, from the barn), and it certainly didn’t make me want to never eat foie gras again. I didn’t think it was particularly “nice” to fill the geese with food to the point where you could see it bulging from their necks, but on the other hand, the conditions in which the geese lived were pleasant and probably a lot better than how some other livestock we eat is treated. Also, Nathalie and Denis’ idyllic farm painted a very clear picture: they are passionate about their work and they treat it, and the geese, respectfully and with care.
We purchased a few containers of pure goose foie gras to bring back and share with friends back home. (In France, goose foie gras is more prized, and therefore more expensive, than duck foie gras, and all foie gras has different levels of quality depending on if it’s pure (entier), mixed with truffles, or made into a pâte). I know our small supply will be even more in-demand after July 1, when California’s ban on producing and selling foie gras goes into effect. (It’s also banned in Norway, Denmark, Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, Israel and the United Kingdom, among other places). After seeing how foie gras is made in France, I have mixed feelings, not necessarily siding with the animal rights activists who say the practice is animal cruelty, but also not becoming a foie gras fanatic either.
Regardless of the moral issues, foie gras will be a rare indulgence for me. It is possible that, for me, it might be “too much,” just as a super-rich, dense, dark chocolately cake is for Jan. While Jan might wish to eat foie gras on a more regular basis if he could, the legal obstacles might mean only one, greater obstacle for us: if we want to eat foie gras, we’ll have to go back to France.