It’s one of the world’s most controversial gourmet foods: fois gras. It has been targeted by animal rights groups because of inhumane processes (factory farmed ducks are typically force fed extreme amounts of food), but a small little farm in Quebec has adopted a more animal friendly approach when raising their ducks. Sure, they still ultimately end up as food, but their lives up to that point are much more enjoyable than their factory produced relatives. At La Ferme Basque, high quality fois gras is made, and it is done so in a no stress environment. The ducks spend their days grazing in the grassy pasture, and when they are in the barn, they still have plenty of room to roam freely.
If you’ve always avoided fois gras because of the methods of production, this Quebec farm may just be your chance to try the decadent food without the pox on your conscience.
La Ferme Basque
Originally from the Basque region of France, Isabelle Mihura is a foie gras farmer in the Charlevoix appellation of Quebec, a couple hours North of Quebec City. Isabelle produces the highest quality foie gras in the country on her small farm, where she uses all the same small scale, traditional Basque methods of production.
Isabelle raises Moulard ducks (or foie gras ducks as their casually called). They are a cross between a Muscovy male and a Peking female. They don’t fly, and they have a quick metabolism for easy digestion.
Isabelle has loved foie gras from an early age. “In Paris, my parents worked at a Michelin star restaurant and on the weekends when I was asked what I wanted to eat, I always said foie gras,” remembers Isabelle. Once in Canada she couldn’t find any foie gras that was like what she had back home so she set out to farm foie gras like they do in the Basque.
Only male Moulards are used in making foie gras because their livers are the most silky and luxurious in texture, the most savoury and seductive in flavour. Isabelle spreads some foie gras terrine on a slice of baguette and hands it to me. It’s coarse and littered with speckles of herbs. It’s earthy, rich and savoury. It yields to the slightest pressure of my teeth and spreads across my tongue before evaporating, melting or disappearing. I’m never sure which. It’s a meat that turns luscious as it permeates your palate, your olfactory senses and your psyche. It’s this magic that sets foie gras apart from any other food.
All of Isabelle’s foie gras products are certified ‘Charlevoix”. It’s one of Canada’s few designated appellations with a superior cachet, a trusted brand and a product in demand by the locals.
Isabelle raises her ducks in groups of thirty and during the spring, summer and fall the ducks roam the outdoor meadows in large fenced off areas the size of a large house. As I roam the farm, there are a variety of pens that hold a total of 320 ducks of mixed ages. They eat as much grass, insects and grain as they want and it’s during this time that their liver gets very large; its partly because of the breed and partly because of their inability to fly.
Back in the retail store, Isabelle shows me a large mason jar of duck cassoulet and I calculate whether or not I can get it on the plane. I drool over the ingredients in the jar as she slices a tender lobe covered in congealed duck fat. She lays it on a piece of fresh baguette. It’s cold; it was cooked, sous vide, with local Iced Apple Cider. I bite into the foie gras covered bread and it smears across the roof of my mouth like thick peanut butter. Immediately, the warmth of my mouth begins to melt the foie gras and it becomes as luscious as warm chocolate. The flavours are of meaty mushrooms, dark duck and caramelized mushrooms, with some sweetness coming from the iced apple cider. Oh, yum.
“This is a small liver,” explains Isabelle. It is in the final two weeks that the birds are force-fed by hand. Isabelle does this by hand stroking the breast and stomach of each animal; partly because they like it, partly to feel their stomach. “You should only feed the bird when the stomach is empty,” explains Isabelle. This is contrary to the treatment of mass produced Moulards. “Its not about force feeding a duck but about how much a duck can eat.” They’re fed rehydrated corn, the texture of warm oatmeal, twice a day. Whole kernel corn is for better digestion and a better quality foie gras in the end. It tastes better, melts less (in the pan) and is softer.
While most stomachs will be empty due to the ducks high metabolism, if the weather is too hot, the ducks digestion becomes sluggish and the food will stay in the stomach longer. If the ducks cannot be fed twice a day they produce smaller livers. Isabelle expects smaller livers in the summer but if you care about the ducks and respect them, it becomes part of the process, much like the lack of strawberries in a rainy spring or tomatoes slow to ripen in a cooler August. If all goes well, the ducks liver will double in size in the final two weeks.
Regardless of the size, Executive Chef Patrick Turcot of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu insists only La Ferme Basque products be served in the Bellerive Restaurant. He loves the product and uses it whimsically in foie gras macaroons or more seriously on his dinner menu, foie gras seared with calvados and apple crisp. He’s even toying with the idea of foie gras cotton candy.
As President of the Charlevoix Flavour Trail, Turcot is a leader in farm-to-table dining in Charlevoix. He doesn’t saturate his menus with Charlevoix products because the quantities Le Manoir goes through are too vast. Instead, he talks to his farmers and together they decide what features can be done. “You have to understand the growers capacity and respect that,” says a man who will do anything to get the best produce for his customers.
Sure Turcot may pay a little more for local products, but they are supremely better quality with no waste whatsoever. “I get 100% yield, so they’re not that expensive after all,” he smiles.
If you’re adventurous enough to cook foie gras at home, Isabelle says there are four things to look for: feed, size, softness and freshness. The fresher the better so if you don’t have a foie gras farm near you, foie gras that has been frozen immediately after harvest is best.
Pan searing is very quick. Both Isabelle and Turcot agree that the pan should be good and hot but not so hot that the foie gras burns. Season it with a bit of salt and pepper and don’t add any oil or butter to the pan. Sear it for 15 to 20 seconds per side, longer if it’s a thick slice.
In his book, My Canada Includes Foie Gras, Jacob Richler boasts that corn-fed, Quebec foie gras is superior to anything produced in both Canada and the USA.”
To get your hands on some La Ferme Basque, I recommend a trip to Charlevoix to explore the Flavour Trail. It’s beautiful country, a delicious mission and it’s what food memories are made of.
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By: Lynn Ogryzlo