Foie gras, or fattened duck or goose liver, is a luxury food item prized as a culinary delicacy and enjoyed the world over. Buttery, rich, and decadent, it can be prepared as a cold mousse or parfait, or as hot seared lobes. Generally, France exports an estimated 5,000 tons of foie gras—or approximately 75 per cent of the world’s supply. In late 2015, however, a virulent strain of the H5N1 virus was detected on a farm in the southwest of France—the heart of the foie gras industry. As a result, the French government temporarily halted foie gras production. Until August of 2016, breeders throughout southwestern France are prohibited from keeping ducks or geese in their slaughterhouses. That translates into roughly nine million fewer ducks on the market this year.
For French foie gras producers, this is a serious issue. Marie-Pierre Pe, a spokeswoman for Cifog, France’s association of foie gras producers, told newspaper Le Figaro that the “interruption to our business will cause cash flow problems, on top of additional wage costs linked to the temporary unemployment of around 4,000 workers, and fixed costs that will have to be paid despite us not having any income.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though, says Thomas Delannoy, Canadian sales manager of the Quebec-based arm of the free-range duck farm Rougié, located in Marieville (about 30 minutes south of Montreal). “Other areas [in France] not affected by the virus are still producing foie gras with no risk to the population at all,” he says.
Nonetheless, Canadian producers are happy to make up for the lack in production of the French delicacy. Rougié, which is based on a cooperative system of 5,000 local farmers (all of which are shareholders), processed 200,000 ducks in 2015, with sales across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. With the deceleration in French production, Delannoy expects demand to increase from French buyers, some of which, like Delannoy himself, view Rougié’s products as comparable, if not better, than the product farmed in the southwest of France. This is, aside from the wealth of French know-how the co-op farmers provide, likely due to two reasons; firstly, Rougié continually sources Quebec’s best corn as fodder. Secondly, there are stringent sanitary regulations Canadian foie gras producers must maintain. With the Canadian Federal Food Inspection Agency, which Delannoy says is the strictest in the world, both animal welfare and food inspection levels are meticulous; “that’s partly why we’ve never had any problems with our production here,” he says.
Chefs the world over are heralding Canadian-grown foie gras as some of the finest.
Delannoy adds that in 11 years of operation they’ve never experienced a bird flu epidemic. This could be because, while France’s ducks and geese live most of their lives outside in fields, colder Canadian weather sees animals housed in temperature-controlled barns year round. The benefit to this, says Delannoy, is that the animals are protected from free-range birds that might fly in carrying a virus: “We’re very strict with the rules governing our ducks. We don’t have any visitors from outside, and our animals are insulated from free range birds that might be sick.” Yet this level of care comes with a price: due to the smaller production levels in the country, buyers can expect to pay on average $10–$20 more per kilogram for the Canadian delicacy as compared to the French.
Jason Bangerter, executive chef of the Relais & Châteaux property’s Langdon Hall Hotel and Spa, agrees that Canada produces some of the best foie gras in the world. “Younger French chefs in France are using Canadian foie gras and other products like birch syrup and spruce tips;” says Bangerter, adding, “this makes the Canadian in me feel fantastic!”
Following his young French colleagues, Bangerter now also sources the delicacy from a variety of Canadian farms, including Rougié. Bangerter says guests at Langdon Hall view foie gras as a special indulgence; “people love it because it’s so luxurious and decadent. My more seasoned guests’ eyes light up when they see foie gras and sweetbreads on the menu. They know what it is and have very particular ways they like to see it prepared,” he explains, nothing that his guests’ most preferred method of enjoying the delicacy is seared, sliced, and hot.
Some may like it hot, and others, cold (like the French, who purportedly prefer a cold torchon or terrine preparation); any way you slice it, while French farmers deal with the ongoing surveillance of their flocks’ health, it’s a good time to be a foie gras producer in Canada.