Monday, December 19, 2005

Down on the Foie Gras Farm

Barbary ducks at the Domaine de la Schleif, Soultz-les-Bains, Alsace.
Photograph by John Miller

I’d better come clean right away: I rather like foie gras. Actually, that’s a lie - I love it. I adore its extreme unctuousness and its complex flavours. I seldom pass up a chance to eat it, and I get a definite frisson from the realisation that about 14 billion calories are contained in every slice.

I’m not alone in appreciating this delicacy. Charles Gérard in l’Ancienne Alsace à Table described the goose as ‘that admirable machine which elaborates and produces the succulent substance known as foie gras’, and could clearly conceive of no other reason for the bird’s existence. Sydney Smith, the eighteenth-century gourmet parson, famously favoured eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. More recently, Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, has labelled it the ultimate guilty pleasure.

The pleasure part is easy to explain – it’s just so disgracefully delicious. And we’re not discussing anything that comes out of a tin here, we’re talking fresh foie gras, barely cooked or perhaps pan-fried. The guilt bit is more insidious, partly due to the calorie question, and partly to unease about the fattening process. It was the latter that led me to decide that if I eat and appreciate the stuff, I ought to go and see how it’s arrived at.

Monsieur Lucien Doriath of the Domaine de la Schleif at the northern end of the route des Vins, near Strasbourg, agreed to take me in hand. Doriath is a man on a mission. His brief is to educate the public on the subject of foie gras and he receives busloads of visitors each week. On guided tours he brooks no interruptions. Giggling in the back row is absolutely not tolerated; we are here to learn.

The grey Barbary ducks, specially bred for foie gras production, are raised on farms in the Saone-et-Loire region and arrive at the Domaine at the age of 14 weeks, weighing an average of 4 kilos. (Doriath only does ducks, no geese. Geese are more delicate animals to raise and fatten and he prefers the more assertive flavour of duck livers.) They spend the final fourteen days of their life in a special, temperature-controlled shed, where the visit starts.

The temperature is agreeably warm, the lighting is dim. Twice a day Doriath climbs into each of the pens with his stool and a bucket of lightly cooked maize, grown to special order by a local farmer. The ducks seem unbothered by his arrival, and allow themselves to be taken on his knee without fuss. He reaches up and pulls down a contraption about the size and shape of a jam funnel, suspended from the ceiling by a pulley arrangement. The duck opens its beak expectantly and the prescribed quantity (which can vary slightly for each animal, depending on its body weight) clatters down through the funnel into the animal’s gullet. The duck swallows a couple of times, and Doriath massages its neck to ease it down. He pushes the animal off his lap and another bird takes its place.

After 12-16 days of force-feeding (the term ‘cramming’ is also used in English), the ducks have gained up to 2 kilos in weight. Their livers weigh about 400 grams. Depending on the time of year – the run-up to Christmas is always the busiest period – between 30 and 60 birds are slaughtered each day. Everything is used: the feathers go to make duvets and pillows (1,300 kilos of feathers per year), the fat is rendered and canned.

The legs are sold fresh or as confits, the breasts are marketed as magrets or (if skinned) as steaks. Some are smoked and finely sliced, to be eaten raw. The fattened livers – about 6 tonnes a year are produced - are offered either fresh or as semi-conserves; a few are put up in tins for longer keeping. Out at the front there’s a seductive selling space called Le Comptoir des Saveurs which does a brisk trade from Monday to Saturday (Sundays too, during December). Products are also sold by mail order. At the back there’s an in-house restaurant where by special order at lunch-time you can feast on poelée de foie gras frais du jour. For this delectable dish of pan-fried foie gras, the ducks have been slaughtered at 11 a.m. and the dish is on the table by 12.30. It would be difficult to have food fresher than this. Traceability is assured.

Doriath’s strategy is to commercialise his entire production himself, through the shop, restaurant and mail order. He prefers not to sell to supermarkets or intermediaries. He seems puzzled at my queries about cruelty, observing that ducks and geese have a natural propensity to stuff themselves, even in the wild. ‘If you want to see cruelty and intensive husbandry, go and have a look at an industrial chicken unit [where Doriath spent ten years before starting his foie gras business]. My ducks get the best possible treatment – if they didn’t, I couldn’t make the best possible product – and quality is what I’m after.’

So how was the guilt, after my trip? A little assuaged – at least as far as Doriath’s production is concerned. And the quality of the product? Fabulous. And my liver? Better not ask.


copyright Sue Style 2005

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mexican Breakfasts

Marc's timely tomatillo posting had me pining once more for real Mexican food - we're just planning our next trip to Mexico. (Come to think of it, we're always planning our next trip there, mainly to visit Ol down in Chiapas but also to get that necessary fix of real Mexican food that's dismally lacking in Europe.) BTW it's been a brilliant year for tomates verdes here in Alsace too. I had a freak harvest this summer and autumn, all of them self-seeded from a load of compost cast carelessly over the herb garden last year. I managed to get most of them in before the recent frosts laid waste to them (and to my epazote, also self-seeded). They've gone into salsas, both raw and cooked, and a fabulously fragrant pipian verde, and they've helped to keep the yearnings at bay - at least till February when we're off again. We'll be in Mexico City for a couple of days, then we'll take ourselves down to Oaxaca and do breakfast the Mexican way.

Breakfast in Mexico can, in truth, be brilliant, or it can be a bit of a minefield. You have to rule out right away the desayuno continental served in modest hotels, consisting of boiled acorns (euphemistically called café americano), barely toasted Pan Bimbo and a smear of margarine. It would be an insult to dignify Pan Bimbo with the name ‘bread’. Flabby and sweet, it’s like a piece of warm flannel, designed for people who have no teeth and even less taste.

Once in Oaxaca, we take a deep breath, square our shoulders and remind ourselves that this is a coffee- and cocoa-producing country with some of the best bakeries in the world, a country where tropical fruits abound, the tortilla reigns supreme, where salsas are nothing to do with dancing and beans are de rigueur.

The city’s central food market on 20 de noviembre is a great place to begin. Long before we ever get near the mercado (which occupies two full blocks), nostrils develop a distinct twitch at the bewitching aromas of roasting cocoa beans, caramelised sugar, toasted almonds and cinnamon. We pause at La Soledad in Calle Mina to see (and smell) the beans being roasted, ground, liquefied and rendered to a paste successively with cinnamon, sugar and almonds. Then we choose between amargo (so-called ‘bitter’, though it’s achingly sweet), especial (sweeter still) and almendrado (with almonds and loads more sugar).

Ducking inside the market past the jeans, leather belts, pink plastic shoes and cockatoos we spot the rows of local women selling tablecloth-sized tortillas called clayudas and virginal white mounds of Oaxaca ‘string’ cheese. Some urge us to taste fried grasshoppers for a crunchy, spicy little early morning snack. Once inside, we blink to get used to the relative gloom. Gradually the serried ranks of comedores or dining rooms come into focus. Here people of all ages and sizes are starting on their first breakfast of the day.

A short, plump lady with jet-black braided hair and liquid brown eyes is whisking up the sweet, almond- and cinnamon-laden chocolate in a huge pan of milk. Backwards and forwards between her palms she rolls the handle of the characteristic chocolate whisk (which looks like a cross between a wooden spoon and a baby’s rattle).

The steaming chocolate, smooth and thick as velvet is served in deep soup bowls with pan de yema, a soft, sweet, yolk-laden bread for dunking. A young man with a huge wooden plank laden with more freshly baked breads balanced on his head sways into the next-door booth and lowers the plank gently and skilfully onto the counter without losing a single shiny golden bun. All around, the marchantas chant their litany of wares – chocolate con agua, chocolate con leche, café con leche, champurrado.

This is just a gentle breaking of the fast, taken early in the morning. Mexicans also do brunch (almuerzo) any time up until about midday. For this weadjourn to La Merced market a little way from the centre (ask any taxi driver). Inside the market at the Fonda la Florecita, a beaming waiter is ready to recite by heart the entire menu of brunch dishes. ‘If I’d been half as good at remembering stuff at school, I might have really gone places!’ he grins.

Mexicans take brunch seriously. First comes fruit – slivers of sunset-coloured papaya, half moon slices of ruby watermelon framed in lacquered green skin and flecked with shiny black seeds; yellow, red and green bananas ranging in size from a stubby finger to a positive paddle; or the delectable Manila mangoes, pale primrose-yellow with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. With the fruit comes a saucer of brilliant green limes cut in ‘cheeks’ (never quarters, or slices) – for these the limes are placed stalks upwards and cloven into four neat pieces, leaving behind a central core of pith and pips.

Brunch revolves largely around the tortilla in any number of guises, shapes and sizes. We feast on empanadas stuffed with the silvery-black huitlacoche corn fungus, or with squash blossoms. Quesadillas are filled with the lightly acidic local white cheese that comes rolled up and wound round on itself like a ball of string. On the fierce heat of the clay griddle, the cheese inside the turned-over tortilla fuses gently with leaves of the pungent, bitter herb epazote (Mexican wormseed). With all of them there's the classic salsa verde or salsa mexicana.

Eggs Oaxaca-style are another option, gently scrambled into a tomato-based sauce with a terrific kick from shiny dried red chiles and flavoured with the ubiquitous epazote herb . In most Mexican regions, tamales are wrapped in corn husks; in Oaxaca they come steamed in fragrant banana leaves.

Thus fortified, we can move on to a day of archaeological explorations, or hop on the gas-fired minibus-special up over the sierra to the coast, or head south on the overnight bus to Ol in Chiapas.

Copyright Sue Style 2005

Tomatillos and Chilies (from Devon!)

(clockwise from top) tomatillos, jalapeños, Hungarian chilies,
aji limons (fresh and dried), chipotles, anaheim

Topsham, Devon 1 December 2005 The first of December arrives here in Devon: wet, blustery, cold and miserable, as you'd expect. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that tomatillos and chillies, grown under polytunnels in the nearby South Hams, are still flourishing. Steve from the South Devon Chili Farm emailed me a few days ago to say that the tomatillos have finally ripened (they were, apparently, planted late this season). He was happy to drop off a crate to me after he finished the Thursday Farmers Market in Exeter, and so he came around today. And now here they sit, in a little crate, wafting scents of the exotic and the far-off, and promising flavours from my childhood past.

This is the second year that the guys from South Devon have supplied me with tomatillos. They (the tomatillos) look absolutely gorgeous in their delicate, papery husks, firm and sticky. In addition to these beauts, I also take a few handfuls of jalapeños, some aji limons, some waxy hungarian chilies that Steve says are delicious simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, some big, meaty anaheims, some dried and smoked chipotles and some dried aji limons, my favorite all purpose dried chili to crush or crumble on just about everything.

"Look!" I say to Bella when she returns home from school. "More fresh chillies! And dried, too."

"Great, Dad," she replies, but without enthusiasm. Do I glance a roll of the eyes to her mother?

"But Bella, I thought you loved chilies," I say, trying not to sound reproachful.

"Yes-s-s-s," she answers, with thirteen-year-old exasperation, "only not in EVERYTHING, Dad."

OK OK, Bella, I get the message and will try and control myself (though it will be difficult with all these beautiful fresh and dried varieties to play with).

Right now, I'm going to slip the husks off the tomatillos and simply cook them up with the jalapeños. Allow to cool. Liquidize roughly and season with salt and lots of freshly chopped cilantro. Perhaps mix a bit of this tangy salsa verde with mashed avocado to spoon into warm corn tortillas. And I can't resist frying some of those Hungarian chilies - apparently they are like pimientos del Padròn, mainly mild except for the odd blow-your-head-off rogue! And the chipotles - oh, smell that deep, smoky, gorgeous, warm and comforting aroma! - they'll be delicious simply crumbled into some scrambled eggs with a bit of chopped chorizo, and topped with the salsa verde of course...


Post-dinner PS: Right now I'm sweating mighty heavily. I couldn't resist frying up not only the Hungarian chilies but also some of the aji limons and the jalapeños. Fried until crispy, then patted in kitchen towel and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Nada mas. Big mistake. These chilies were just too darn hot to eat this way. The Hungarians were unpredictable, and the aji limons sort of crept up on you - you take a nibble and think, hey, that's OK, then you have a bigger munch and all of a sudden you're totally on fire, gulping water, gulping wine, still on fire. Never again. Well, not until tomorrow, at least. Actually those ajis had a wonderful flavour, bloody hot, but with a waxy, lemony character that is very attractive. The jalapeños by contrast had a more green pepper heat, far less subtle. The Hungarians, well, as I said, they were just ridiculously variable, from so mild to blow-your-head-off-totally. The tomatillos cooked down with simply jalapeños were amazing, the resulting salsa verde delicious sour and hot and green and pungent. Steve will bring me out another batch next Wednesday, and also some genuine pimientos del Padròn.