Foie Gras Wars & Tranquil Butter

October 11, 2012

Of course you know, this means war.
~Bugs Bunny (a friendly rival of Daffy Duck)

Foie gras is salty, sweet, and unctuous, with luxuriant buttery notes. Decadent, almost prurient stuff.

Foie gras, simply translated as “fat liver” in French, are fattened livers of geese and ducks. This is done via a method called gavage, feeding the animals through a tube several times a day for a few weeks, which fattens their livers to about 10-12 times normal size. As renowned food chemist Harold McGee once described, “it’s a kind of living pâté, “the result of “constant overnourishment.”

Lamentably, foie gras is at the center of another tedious and unsavory political polemic. On the one hand are producers, restauranteurs and epicures; on the other are animal activists and legislators; in the middle are the birds and lawyers. Passions have run high, and at times have been rabid. Mon dieu!

California Senate Bill 1520, a statute originally enacted in 2004 but effective July 1, 2012, prohibits the “force feed(ing of) a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size” along with the sale of products that are a result of this process. The foie gras law, as it is so affectionately referred to by some and vilified by others, calls for a $1,000 per diem fine for any violations.

Foie gras has gastronomic roots dating back to ancient Egypt and the Jewish diaspora. Outlawing this indulgently oleaginous fare, however, is not novel. Several years ago, a similar ban in Chicago was rescinded after chefs either ignored or evaded it and city inspectors were simply unenthusiastic about enforcement. The foie gras prohibition was first established in Norway and similar statutes were adopted by Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, and Israel. The California ban is the only one of its kind in the states. Groups such as the Humane Society, the ASPCA and PETA have joined forces to oppose foie gras consumption, claiming that ducks are subjected to tortuous and inhumane treatment. A nationwide prohibition is sought. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has sued the USDA, calling foie gras a diseased product unfit for human consumption. Hearings are pending.

Ironically, foie gras production in the United States is miniscule compared to other animal husbandry. There are less than a handful of American foie gras farms, all raising ducks rather than geese, who sell not only these treasured livers but also breast and leg meat, sausages made with scraps, and down from the feathers. Just imagine the outrage, political fallout, and lobbying efforts from laws demanding humane treatment for other beasts such as cattle, sheep, pigs or chickens in this land of carnivores.

The foie gras quarrel has now shifted to the courtroom. C’est la guerre. A lawsuit has been filed by the aggrieved plaintiffs in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking, among other things, temporary and permanent injunctive relief. The complaint maintains that the California foie gras law is unconstitutionally vague and treads on Congress’ exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce. The suit also contends that the law unfairly places the burden of knowing a product’s origin on the distributor, restaurant or salesperson. So far, District Court Judge Stephen Wilson has denied a request by restauranteurs and producers for a preliminary injunction until matters are resolved in court.  Judge Wilson also rejected a motion to intervene by the ALDF in this litigation which likewise foreclosed the participation of Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and the Marin Humane Society, citing judicial economy concerns.

Not so much a postscript…it should be noted that Dr. Jaime Ruiz, director of Cornell University’s Duck Research Laboratory (who does not support or oppose foie gras production) stressed that “the farmers that I know here in New York and France handle the birds carefully, not feeding them above the physiological limits of the birds.” He also noted that force-feeding, done correctly, does not cause pain nor is an enlarged liver a diseased one. His opinions are shared by many.  An avowed omnivore and francophile, but ever scornful of proven animal abuses, you may have some inkling where I stand.

Rancor aside, think about melding foie gras with fine butter and slathering some on a toasted slice of artisanal bread, over the top of a freshly grilled steak or lamb chop or slipped in to impart sublime flavor to a simple sauce.

FOIE GRAS BUTTER

1/2 lb foie gras, at room temperature

1/2 medium shallot, peeled and finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter

8 T (1 stick) high quality unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 T Madeira
2+ t quatre épices (see below)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium glass bowl, mash the room temp foie gras with a fork removing any veins, bits or stringy tissue. Place in plastic wrap, and shape, roll into a tight log about 6-7″ in length, securing the ends. Refrigerate until firm.

In the meantime, in a heavy, smaller sauté pan heat a dollop of olive oil and butter and cook shallots until just translucent, about 2 minutes.  Drain on paper towels, place in a small glass bowl, and set aside.

Bring a medium, heavy saucepan of water to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Meanwhile, prepare an ice water bath. Poach the wrapped foie gras until soft and the fat just begins to melt, about 1-2 minutes. Retrieve and briefly place in ice water bath to cool.

Dry foie gras log, remove plastic wrap and place foie gras in the bowl of a food processor. Add softened butter, Madeira, shallot, quatre épices, salt and pepper. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process in pulses until smooth and silky, scraping down sides as necessary, about a minute or so. Scrape the mixture onto a new sheet of plastic wrap and form into a 6-7″ log. Wrap tightly, secure the ends and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

To serve, remove the foie gras butter from the refrigerator and slice into even disks. Wrapped well, the butter can be refrigerated for up to one week, or frozen for several months.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Pourboire: consider adding some chopped figs or prunes to the log before rolling.

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