Foie Gras, and Some Trouble in Paradise
This is essentially a story about duck livers, the free market system, and the current state of affairs in the foie gras community. Pronounced "fwah grah", which literally means fat liver, what weíre really talking about is the oversized liver of a duck (and in some cases, a goose) and to many, one of the great gastronomic delicacies of the universe. Itís also fair to say that a significant portion of the adult population has never experienced this particular delicacy, most of whom are surviving and leading very normal lives. Itís also fair to suggest that more and more people are becoming exposed to this.
Foie gras is incredibly expensive, extremely high in fat, and letís face it, oversized livers donít happen all by themselves. Call it what you will, these animals are force-fed and itís not pretty, and there are many who voice their opposition to this practice. But all things considered, we live in very adventurous culinary times, and people are anxious to experience everything Ė especially something as delicious as foie gras. And of course, for the real devotees, they canít get enough of it. The French eat it all the time, especially in Gascony where foie gras dominates. And all that cholesterol notwithstanding, the French still maintain that low rate of heart disease.
What makes this industry interesting is that most fresh foie gras served in our restaurants used to come from only one basic source, Hudson Valley Foie Gras in upstate New York. For many years, and basically due to our importation laws, the Hudson Valley people who raise a hybrid duck called the Moullard, enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the domestic fois gras business. There is a fatal poultry virus known as Newcastle disease that hit the Southern California area in the early seventies and some twelve million birds had to be destroyed, so the government banned the shipments of raw (fresh) livers from countries like France. There was foie gras from California (Sonoma) using the Muscovy duck and some from Canada, but for the most part, the chefs preferred the American product produced at Hudson Valley. Basically, when the major purveyors specializing in foie gras and duck specialties needed product, they were almost totally dependent on Hudson Valley.
Enter the government, and in December of 1998 in what was somewhat shocking to the food world and somewhat devastating to Hudson Valley, the Department of Agriculture decided to allow the heretofore forbidden raw livers from France into the United States. This decision changed the foie gras picture quite dramatically and in terms of the immediate impact on the industry, all hell broke loose.
One of the major players in the world of foie gras is DíArtagnan located right outside of New York City and run by Ariane Daguin and George Faison. Founded in 1984, they quickly became one of the countryís leading purveyors of foie gras, pates, sausages, smoked delicacies, and organic game and poultry. Their success certainly had much to do with the continuing success of Hudson Valley, and when they jumped on the availability of the French product, the folks at Hudson Valley did not react favorably. They considered DíArtagnanís new found interest in the new supply a bit of a "slap in the face."
According to Ariane, " Our business is about supplying our customers with the best products possible and of course, price is a major factor. For years we bought almost everything from Hudson Valley and never even touched the foie gras from Sonoma or Canada. We did a lot of business, and Hudson Valley was a major part of our success, and they still continue to be. Itís just that the French foie gras is substantially lower in price, and for certain things like terrines, itís a better product. I would say that for hot cooking, the Hudson Valley product is superior."
"Hudson Valley had the market almost to themselves, but the new laws changed all of that and they are understandably unhappy. But the lower prices and increased availability means thereís all kinds of new customers for foie gras. Volume is way up, and thatís good for the industry and certainly good for DíArtagnan."
Yet another player is Assouline & Ting of Philadelphia. For over 17 years, Joel Assouline has been working with Rougie, the leading foie gras producer in France, and the new importation laws have resulted in an entirely new concept that will undoubtedly have a major impact on this business. Rougie is now providing a product that is flash-frozen only two hours from slaughter, and according to Assouline, this is very significant.
"Every day the liver ages, it loses more fat, so this process represents incredible technology. Itís delivered frozen and when placed in cold water for a period of two hours, the texture hasnít changed and the taste and appearance is wonderful. Weíre talking about a shelf life of one year compared to the fresh product that will last only fifteen days. When you take the shipping into account, weíre really talking about a major development.
"Keep in mind that a number of chefs have never been exposed to the fresh French product, and I realize there is a psychological factor with the frozen foie gras, but I believe that the French product is superior, and it is decidedly less expensive. Itís just a matter of trying it, and more and more of my customers are going in this direction."
"This is what the free market is all about, and what we have here is a better product at a lesser price. For years, Hudson Valley enjoyed a virtual monopoly when it came to foie gras, and that monopoly is over. I would say that overall the prices of foie gras have come down about 25 percent and most of us think this is very good for this business."
Business at Hudson Valley is reportedly off some 30 percent, and they have been forced to lower their prices, so theyíve been anything but supportive of all the recent developments in this industry. They see it as a "flood" of cheaper fois gras coming into this country and leaving them in an unfair competitive position. And while so many others see it as a blessing, perhaps itís just a situation where the free market hasnít been good to everyone.
For a gourmet, a life without foie gras is like dessert without sugar. The liver of a fattened goose or duck is one of the most exquisite foods imaginable with its incredibly delicious flavor and silken texture. Foie Gras is versatile and extremely delicate, and requires simple preparations.
In the late 70ís, I started using foie gras shipped in cans in my restaurant, Deja-vu in downtown Philadelphia. I made mousses with truffles and Port, and it was a big hit. In the beginning of the 80's when the fresh foie gras became available, I used it for sautéing and also made terrines. There are so many ways to use foie gras including soufflés, soups, salads, and even whole roasted. The fact that itís so rich, not much is needed to satisfy the appetite. My personal preference is sautéed Ė crunchy on the outside and pink inside with some sort of sweet concoction.
When cooking foie gras there is really no waste as the fat can be saved and used for enriching sauces. The fat is also ideal for sautéing potatoes and vegetables giving them a richer flavor than butter or oil.
A favorite recipe:
Fresh Foie Gras with Passion Fruit, Beet Carpachio &Baby Arugala
Use one 4-ounce slice of foie gras per person. Press and slightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brown it in a hot skillet on both sides and keep it warm on a paper towel. Deglaze with champagne vinegar and reduce it by half. Add 2 tbsp. of passion fruit puree and Ĺ tbsp. of orange blossom honey. Add some black pepper, a touch of salt, and reduce. To complete, add 1 tbsp. of duck stock and set aside to keep warm.
Roast organic beets on a tray with salt in a 350-degree oven until beets are tender. Cool the beets and slice. In a small bowl, mix baby arugala salad with some salt and pepper and toss with the mixture of passion fruit and vinegar. Place the beets in a circle on the plate, place salad in the middle and top with the foie gras. Spoon the sauce over the foie gras and glaze the beets very lightly with dressing.