The Story Of Ethical Foie Gras
We arrived at Eduardo Sousa’s farm late in the morning, after an overnight flight from New York. My friend Lisa picked me up at Madrid airport, and we drove southwest toward Badajoz, traversing Extremadura. An unmarked dirt road led up to Eduardo’s farm, or we guessed it did. No one was around. A furious barking dog tied to the side of a shed greeted us. The place looked deserted. We found Eduardo lying on his back in a small, open field, his mobile raised above his head. Two dozen or so geese circled him in a raucous chorus of quacking and feather shaking.
“Bonita!” I heard him say as we approached a bright orange fence. “Hola, bonita!” Thinking he was on speakerphone, we slowed down, only to realise he was snapping pictures of his geese.
“Hola – Eduardo?” Lisa said. Eduardo snapped more pictures. By now I was close enough to see that he was laughing.
The geese shrieked and ran for the other side of the fence line, and Eduardo stood up quickly, his carefree air marred briefly by concern. After whispering something in the direction of the geese, he beamed even more brightly, then turned to acknowledge us with a gentle wave.
Lisa introduced us. “Vale,” she said. “Dan es chef de Nueva York.” Eduardo raised an eyebrow in my direction.
“It’s an honour to meet you, sir,” I said, awkwardly formal. In the instant of that raised eyebrow, I was overcome with a feeling that our trip was doomed. Foie gras without gavage [force feeding]? Who was I kidding? More to the point, who was Eduardo kidding? You didn’t need to be Columbo to question this guy’s story. He looked nothing like a farmer, and this didn’t look anything like a farm. There were no tractors, no barns, and no silos. There was only a smiling, slightly chubby man in a green sweater-vest and a phone filled with portraits of his geese.
A long moment of silence followed. I fought the urge to speak bluntly.
“How often are you moving the geese to new grass?” I asked abruptly. Lisa, startled, repeated the question in Spanish, drawing it out for the sake of politeness.
Eduardo shook his head. “I listen to the geese,” he said. “I give them what they want.” We began walking the perimeter of the fence.
“And what are you feeding them?” I asked.
“Feed? No, we don’t feed,” he said.
“He doesn’t feed his geese?” I asked, looking at Lisa. Having travelled halfway around the world to learn about what was considered an impossibility – foie gras without force-feeding – I wasn’t prepared for a farm that… didn’t feed at all?
Eduardo smiled and held out his hands, palms down, moving them up and down briefly as if to say, slow down, the understanding takes time. “The geese eat what they want. They feed off the land,” he said. “Very simple.”
We continued walking around the fence. The geese followed, slowly at first, their movements nearly imperceptible, but within a few minutes they were in a neat phalanx, marching across the paddock until they arrived, a few feet from where we stood, quacking and ruffling their feathers in delight.
Eduardo pointed at the power source for the orange fence, a solar box that converted the sun’s energy into electricity. “The geese avoid getting too close to the fence. It feels foreign to them, I think. And anyway, it doesn’t much matter, because only the outside of the fence is electrified.”
“Only the outside?”
“The outside is electrified and not inside of the fence – there’s no current running through the inside.”
I looked at Lisa and laughed. “A fence for the animals that’s not electrified. Does he mean they’re free to leave?”
“Free!” Eduardo said, his arms flapping wildly to show me just how free.
His job, he explained, was to give the geese what they wanted, and if he succeeded, they wouldn’t leave. Part of what they wanted, apparently, was to not feel fenced in, because if they felt fenced in they would feel manipulated. “They eat less when they feel manipulated,” he said.
The fence, he said, is used only when the geese are too young to protect themselves from predators. And even then, “The geese don’t feel fenced in. They feel protected.” To be fenced in, in fact, didn’t exist on Eduardo’s farm.
Eduardo insisted we drive to another area of the farm. The fencing system was important, he told us, but the freedom to roam and forage was essential to the success of the foie gras. He wanted us to see the adult geese at work.
He drove us along a back road, so slowly that I wondered if he had a flat tyre. The effect, if not the intent, of this meandering was a shared appreciation for our surroundings. Winding through these open fields, intercut with enormous oak trees, it struck me for the first time that we were driving through the famed Spanish Dehesa. For most chefs (and Spaniards, too), coming to the Dehesa is a pilgrimage to a sacred place, the source of the renowned jamón ibérico. Food writers tell us that chefs are obsessed with superior ingredients, especially ingredients that make their cooking sing – Périgord truffles, artisanal olive oils from Italy, sea salts from Brittany – and it’s true. We’re drawn to anything that makes our food taste better. But there are a select few products that inspire complete subservience, which arrives and departs our kitchens unchanged and without garnish. These foods fall into the category not of ingredients on a chef’s palette but of fully formed works of art. A perfectly ripe cheese, for instance, or a just-picked heirloom tomato, still warm from the sun. Or jamón ibérico.
Even the most talented chefs agree that they’re better left alone. But unlike the perfectly ripe cheese or the heirloom tomato, which can be produced with exceptional results almost anywhere, no one has been able to replicate the taste of jamón ibérico. It is unquestionably the finest ham in the world. With a taste that is both rich and dry, as nutty as Spanish almonds or aged sherry, it’s almost indescribably mouth-filling and deeply satisfying.
As we drove, I admired the oak trees outside my window – the source of the pigs’ famous acorn diet. They looked ancient but powerful, as though they’d risen up from the thick grassland through sheer force of will.
We took a sharp right onto a dirt road and drove slowly through a maze of trees until we hit an opening. The lush grass and the scattering of oak trees came into quick focus. I asked whether Eduardo raised any of the famous Iberian pigs.
“Pigs? Sure, I have some pigs,” he said with a lack of interest, as though shrugging off a litter of barn cats.
Suddenly Eduardo screamed – “LOOK!” He slammed on the brakes, threw his body forward, and pasted his hands on the windshield. Eduardo could see his beloved geese in the distance, doing what I imagine he saw them do every day, which was waddle in the grass and hunt for food. We were at least 800 feet away, but he leapt from the car and began walking very slowly, crouching slightly and humming something I couldn’t hear. I followed close behind. Suddenly, with what I would have mistaken for theatrics if I wasn’t seeing it up close for what it was – love – he fell to the ground and began to crawl.
“Hola, bonitas,” he said, and Lisa translated for me as we followed him.
“Lovelies,” he was saying. “Oh, my lovelies. How are you, my lovelies?”
He stopped and showed us that they were scavenging olives from a collection of trees. He was smiling in the way a father might when he sees his children sitting down together to a well-rounded meal. Eduardo acknowledged that it was an expensive lunch. He said he probably makes more money selling his olives for first-press olive oil than he does from his livers.
“In the end, they eat 50% and I sell the other 50%.” It was the “take half, leave half” rule of rotating herbivores onto fresh grass, except here the geese dictated the terms.
“If you make sure the geese are relaxed and happy, you’ll be rewarded with the gift of fatty livers. That is God’s way of thanking us for providing so much good food for the geese,” he said, in a pronouncement that somehow sounded neither mystical nor evangelical, just likely.
Or was there false modesty at work here? I pressed Eduardo about intervening more than he let on. Didn’t he, and his father and grandfather before him, face any challenges from the environment? Eduardo shook his head. His challenge had nothing to do with the landscape, he said. It had to do with the marketplace – with the chefs, distributors, and consumers who all demand yellow foie gras.
The quality of a liver is determined by several factors. Among the most important is it's colour. The yellower, the better. A pale liver commands a much lower price.
Chefs learn early in their careers to be vigilant about avoiding pale livers.
The problem for Eduardo is that the coveted yellow colour comes from corn. The higher the concentration of corn in the feed, the better chance you have for brighter livers. Since Eduardo only occasionally allowed for free-choice corn, his livers were naturally pale grey. For many years he embraced this idiosyncrasy in a vain attempt to celebrate his process. “I cannot tell my geese to make their livers more yellow,” he would say. It didn’t matter. People wanted yellow livers and were willing to pay more for them. Eduardo had a difficult time competing.
As luck would have it, several years ago Eduardo’s geese spent their last few weeks in an area of his farm inundated with Lupin plants. Lupins are a good source of protein, popular in livestock feed. They grow wild throughout the Dehesa, often densely concentrated in certain areas. They also happen to be bright yellow. Eduardo’s geese didn’t especially care for the plant until it matured and went to seed. Then, he said, they nearly attacked it, gorging on the seeds and devouring the entire pasture.
He forgot about how much of it they ate until after the slaughter. That’s when he discovered that the livers had turned yellow as if his geese had consumed enormous amounts of corn. The next year, he manoeuvred them into the same lupin-dense field, which again made the livers bright yellow. It’s become a routine.
Thinking of jamón ibérico, I asked Eduardo if he wouldn’t prefer that his geese eat a diet of the famous acorns alone. They may not provide the same bright colour, but surely the flavour would be compensation enough. He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s for them to decide.” “Acorns,” he added, suddenly impatient. “Why is jamón ibérico always just about the acorns? Acorns – ‘the best feed in the world!’ Acorns – ‘the best fat in the world!’ Did anyone ever consider that there are acorns all over the world, but no one can replicate jamón ibérico?” He paused to indicate that the answer was obvious. “These geese eat tons of acorns, but if they don’t move around, if they don’t eat all this grass” – here he raised his arm to outline the lush pasture – “without grass, the acorns are nothing.”
The grass, he explained, makes the acorns taste sweet, which means the more grass his geese have access to, the more acorns they eat. Their systems are primed, in essence, because of a chemical reaction that occurs between grass and acorns. Eduardo claimed that the reaction causes an increase in weight much faster than if the geese ate acorns alone.
Just as we turned to head back for lunch, Eduardo seemed to reconsider, suggesting that we see a few more geese first. He thought we’d find a group in the general vicinity, but as we walked around, stopping at several clearings, he admitted that he really had no idea.
It was another odd moment. How could he not know the whereabouts of his animals? If the geese were a hobby, a sideshow to the famed Iberian pigs, misremembering their location might make sense. But a foie gras company that didn’t keep track of its livers? And seemed to take pride in not knowing?
We continued searching. Eduardo’s hands were clasped behind his back as he walked. He looked, I noted, very nearly like a goose. His head rotated back and forth, and he kept his nose pointed skyward as if following a scent. In 40 minutes, we didn’t see a single goose.
I noticed that Eduardo was again looking up at the sky, a few hundred yards to the left. There was a small flock of wild geese, flying in our direction. As they got closer, Eduardo’s geese began honking more loudly. By the time the wild geese got to within 50 yards, you could clearly hear them honking as well. They sounded, to my untrained ear, like they were having an argument. I couldn’t tell which group was louder.
“The wild geese come to visit?” I said.
Eduardo shook his head. “Sometimes they come and they stay.”
“Sometimes they never leave,” he said.
“But Eduardo,” I said, “isn’t the DNA of a goose to fly south in winter and north in…”
“No,” he interrupted, shaking his head. “No, the DNA of a goose is to seek conditions that are conducive to life, to happiness. When they come here, that is what they find.” Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in the back of a restaurant in Monesterio, a quiet town just north of Seville. As we waited to be served a plate of his goose liver, Eduardo smiled nervously. Finally, the waiter arrived with the foie gras. “Voilà!” he said, and then turned to me and slowly, in his best English, said, “Freedom foie gras.” On the white plate sat a pâté of the liver, with three sprigs of chives sticking out from its centre (which Eduardo, either offended or embarrassed by the gratuitous garnish, removed with a quick sweep of his hand). Next to it, the waiter placed small ramekins of sea salt and black pepper and a plate of thinly sliced baguette.
Eduardo lifted the plate of foie gras to his nose and inhaled. He put it back on the table and then suddenly lifted it again to his nose, bringing it so close this time that it nearly touched his nostrils; he jerked the plate in small clockwise circles, agitating the foie gras to release its aromas.
It was a funny ritual but it struck me as especially strange because the pâté had been prepared by Eduardo and his small staff the previous winter. After his flock is slaughtered, the livers are preserved, either as a pâté or in jars as confit – individual slices of liver stored in their own fat. Eduardo was not simply evaluating his liver; he was evaluating how well he himself had prepared it.
He inhaled, this time very hard, and his shoulders shot up toward the ceiling. With a nod to the waiter, we were left alone.
“Last season’s foie gras,” Eduardo said, scrunching his nose apologetically as he returned the plate to the table. “It’s all I have.”
Eduardo waited for me as I dug into a small section and brought it over to my plate. “Last year’s liver,” he repeated, smiling.
I took a bite. The smell was what got to me first because as I chewed I was struck by the smell of meat. I most especially smelled liver. Foie gras, as a rule, is never described as delicious liver – you wouldn’t describe white truffles as perfumed fungus, either – but here I was, unmistakably tasting liver. And not metallic, muddy-tasting liver, but sweet, deeply flavoured, livery liver. It occurred to me, as I took another bite, that foie gras is essentially a small amount of liver flavoured with a whole lot of fat. I had never thought about it that way because I had never known any other foie gras. Eduardo’s foie gras was very different: it was a whole lot of liver enhanced by a small amount of fat.
When I mentioned this to Eduardo, I noticed he wasn’t eating. He nodded in agreement. “To taste just fat is to taste nothing. The fat should be integrated, to carry the flavour.” I took another bite, amazed now at the texture – it cut like room-temperature butter but again tasted like deeply flavoured meat. It was incredibly delicious.
The waiter appeared with another plate. This time, a jar of Eduardo’s confit of foie gras sat in the centre. Using a spoon, I dug in to reveal what looked like a marbled prime rib, leveraged by yellow, glistening fat. I took a bite. And then another. I tasted cloves.
“Eduardo,” I said, “the cloves are perfect.”
“Cloves?” he said. “No, no cloves.”
“Really?” I said in disbelief because I truly didn’t believe him.
If you want to irritate a chef, start by questioning his palate. “No cloves,” I said, a little testily.
Eduardo shook his head, spreading the meat on a piece of baguette. “No seasoning.” He qualified that he sometimes used salt and pepper but even those were superfluous if the geese had the correct diet. He quickly listed certain plants that provide salinity and others that impart peppery qualities. “If you have these in the right proportion,” he told me, “your meat will, too.”
“You season your livers in the field?” I asked.
“The geese eat what their heart tells them to eat,” he said, letting his fingers do a quick dance on his chest to show what an easily understood animal thing the heart is. “I just make sure what they want is available to them.”
I took another few bites and watched Eduardo eat. Even when he stopped chewing, his lips moved silently. He appeared to be lost in thought, or prayer. “Eduardo,” I said, dipping back into the jar for another bite. “How many chefs are serving your foie gras?” He shrugged and shook his head.
“Which chefs?” I asked again as I went for more foie gras. “Are they only in Spain?”
He shook his head again, jutting out his lower lip for emphasis. “No chefs.”
I put down my fork. Some of the most famous chefs in the world are in Spain. Chefs like these demand only the best ingredients. This was the best foie gras. How could he not be selling his livers to chefs? It seemed impossible.
“Chefs?” he said, gently wiping his mouth. “Chefs don’t deserve my foie gras.”
Extracted from The Third Plate by Dan Barber available here
For more on Eduardo Sousa, go to sousa-labourdette.com