Anyone who eats and reads—and I dearly hope that’s everyone here, now—has gotten wind of the foie gras wars. I am not going to write the entire history of what’s happened in the past twelve months, but here’s the bulleted version:
• Chicago’s City Council bans foie gras in local restaurants. Angry chefs sue. Oregon, as well as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California consider similar laws.
• Portland animal rights activists stand in front of various restaurants crying foul on the fowl; local restaurateur Pascal Sauton vows to “NEVER remove foie gras from [Carafe Bistro’s] menu.”
• Whole Foods—which stopped carrying foie gras in 1997—tells one of its specialty fowl purveyors, Grimaud Farms, that it will no longer do business with the company if Grimaud continues to carry foie gras. Griamaud caves, and severs its long alliance with its foie gras supplier, Sonoma Foie Gras. Sonoma takes Whole Foods to court, charging “intentional interference with contract.”
“I mean, this is almost illegal, right? Didn’t Microsoft have a few issues with this?” says Geoff Latham, owner and president of Nicky USA, the wild game purveyor based here in Portland. “Now, I like the idea of Whole Foods, but it’s gotten way too corporate; it’s crushing the little guy.”
With controversy comes change: while some Portland restaurants, such as Higgins, have agreed to remove foie gras from their menus, others, such as Le Pigeon and Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill, are offering the prized duck liver on French toast and scattering it with candied watermelon rind. And if they’re fast with a few hundred dollars, they can now have an even more prized delicacy on with which to work with: fresh goose liver, which until this week has never been available commercially in the United States.
In a phone interview yesterday, Latham explained how it came about.
I hear you have some goose liver.
I do. The first ones arrived today.
And this is the first time we’ll be getting fresh goose foie gras in quantity in the United States, yes?
Right. I always find it funny when food journalists here write about the goose foie gras at some restaurant, when what they’ve been eating is duck. Goose is the real thing, what they eat in France. Now we’ve got it here.
How did this come about, and why now?
You want the story? Okay. In May, Whole Foods decided not to carry Grimaud; until then, they were using its duck legs and breasts. They say, dump foie gras, which they get from Sonoma Foie Gras, or we dump you. This is after Grimaud has been working with Guillermo [Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras] for twelve years.
That’s pretty rough.
Yeah, it is. Grimaud has principles. But is also has employees, and it you’re going to lose thirty percent of your business, well, your hand is forced.
So, they dropped Sonoma. And Somona files suit.
Yeah. But here’s where it even gets more wicked twisted: Whole Foods drops Grimaud, anyway, as well as any other business that does business with anyone who touches foie gras.
Well, yes and no. Because Grimaud says, screw you, Whole Foods; we’re going with geese. And they’re back in business with Sonoma. This is not official yet, but I know it because I do business with both these guys.
Okay, so, how do the geese get in the picture?
Before all this went down, Grimaud had contracted with a farm to create a more humane feeding tube. There are four hundred of these geese being produced; the first two hundred were slaughtered last Friday [November 11]. They were packed on Monday. I took delivery yesterday [Wednesday].
Explain to me how goose liver differs from duck?
There are two ways to harvest the liver: warm evisceration, and cold evisceration. The traditional is warm; the bird is killed and the liver is removed. Artisan evisceration is cold: the bird is killed, chilled overnight, and the liver is harvested in the morning. Cold evisceration means, it has a higher melting point, so the chef is losing less of it in the pan. These livers are cold evisceration.
What’s the difference in taste?
I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m told, it’s very smooth, with minimal veining.
Yeah, I bit into a foie gras vein the other night, and… it wasn’t pretty. So, who in Portland is going to have the new foie gras?
Out of the two hundred that were just slaughtered, Thomas Keller ordered one hundred for the French Laundry and Per Se. Here in town, Philippe Boulot bought one for Christmas, for his family and friends. The only other order I have right now is, surprisingly, from a brand new restaurant, Ten-01.
How much is it going for?
It’s ninety dollars a pound. I thought they’d each weight more than two pounds each, but so far, they’re between one-and-a-half and two pounds.
It seems as though, as opposed to limiting foie gras, the controversy is actually helping the market to expand.
The controversy has only helped the sale of foie gras. We’ve had more writing this year about foie gras than in the past fifteen years. Which is great. I have always been one of the guys out there in defense of foie gras. Here in Portland, we’re lucky the House of Representatives didn’t take the [foie gras bill] to a vote. It’s just crazy; all this, after the American Veterinarian Medical Association said they could not find any proof—nothing, and —that foie gras production was harmful to the duck.