Danie, now 70, bought her first goose when she was 23 years old. With the money she earned selling her first foie gras, she purchased a second goose. She and her family now have 2,000 geese. Danie and Guy also brought the first foie gras farm to the California wine country; however, when California law changed, forbidding the production of foie gras, they closed the operation. But Guy still sports his “Peace. Love. Foie – Sonoma Valley” t-shirt.
The day after they’re born, the goslings are brought to the farm, where they live four months before they’re gavaged (force-fed) for two weeks; then they are “harvested.” The roasted chickens you buy at Whole Foods are most likely only alive for thirty days.
While foie gras production is controversial, wild geese actually force-feed themselves naturally. Many years ago, people noticed that goose livers were especially delicious around Christmas time. Later they discovered the geese had force-fed themselves to prepare for their fall migration. When the geese returned the next year, they were skinny and their livers lacked the rich flavor of the goose livers at Christmas.
An average goose liver weighs about 76 grams, and a force-fed goose liver weighs between 800 grams to 1 kilo (over two pounds). One liver costs over $120, but it can feed twenty people.
Danie’s son, Gilles, is in charge of the gavage. To create a low stress environment, only Gilles feeds the geese. Three times a day for fifteen days, he feeds them a locally grown mix of corn, grain, and water; it looks a lot like polenta and is probably delicious.
Gilles perches on a stool inside a pen containing ten geese. He pulls a metal hose from the machine and inserts it into the goose’s neck, and the machine releases a measured portion of food. It takes 3-4 seconds. This isn’t as harrowing as it sounds: geese don’t have gag reflexes, and because they often swallow rocks, the inside of their throats is tough.
About every two weeks, they butcher 100 geese: 50 on Monday morning and another 50 on Tuesday morning. In the afternoons, we prepare the meat. Since I’ve never liked touching raw chicken breasts, or even cutting roasted chickens, I’m skittish about participating.
First, my uniform: white rubber boots, a white jacket, a blue rubber apron and a hairnet – très chic, non? I’m thrilled to be tucked deep in the French countryside, away from any photo opportunities.
When I report for duty at 8:30 a.m., the smell of raw meat and fresh blood overwhelms me. The room looks like a scene in a horror movie: a ceiling track transports hanging geese from one station to the next. Whitewashed walls surround a tile floor with a drain in the center. But it’s much calmer than I imagined – no squawking or thrashing. To prevent the geese from feeling anything, they are first put to sleep with an electrical current. One goose takes just five minutes to cycle through the entire pluming process.
As a rookie, I get the easiest job on the line. After the goose has been plumed, I wipe down the warm body with a towel and look for missed feathers. Luckily the blowtorch lady is to my left, giving each goose a quick firing for sterilization, so it starts to smell a bit like roasted chicken and less like rancid turkey. I quietly hum Christmas carols to distract myself.
About an hour into the morning, Danie’s eight-year-old grandson strolls in wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and Crocs. I look at Danie -- Shouldn’t somebody get him out of here before he sees something that will give him nightmares? He walks over and helps me pull out leftover feathers, chatting with his aunt about preparing for the first day of school.
Knowing that nothing is thrown away – ne rien jetter – helps me appreciate the French lifestyle. Every part of the goose will be used. The feathers are sorted and sold to make duvet comforters and polar jackets, the feet are boiled down into gelatin (buh-bye sour watermelon gummies), cosmetics companies purchase the intestines, bones, and heads (au revoir glamorous red lips) and once it has congealed, the blood can be boiled and eaten.
Preparing the Meat
After a two-hour lunch break (another perk of the French lifestyle!), we reconvene in the conserverie to prepare the meat. Danie and Gilles are at their own metal table deveining the foie with small paring knives. Wearing a paper hat, Gilles, pops a chunk of raw liver into his mouth. I do a double take. Did he seriously just do that?
I am at another table with three others. We slice through the boney carcasses and navigate a web of veins to remove each heart. Once we’ve harvested the fifty hearts, we cut up the meat: magret, or breast, filets; drumstick pieces for confit; and leftover meat and fat scraps for rillettes (similar to shredded meat). Within three hours, I get Goose Anatomy 101 and one helluva cooking lesson.
Danie is cutting the foie into uniformly weighed pieces which she salts and peppers, then stuffs in jars to sell. The rillettes go in an industrial-sized pot to cook for twelve hours. Then we pull out all the bones. Danie offers me a piece of gum to keep myself from snacking on the rillettes (à la Gilles) while working. I’m confident that won’t be a problem, but I accept the gum to get the full experience. It’s a great trick I’ll adopt the next time I make cookie dough.
The rillettes undergo two rounds of bone-searching scrutiny, but I’m still worried there are fragments left behind (the American in me is trying to avoid a lawsuit). Gilles explains that big enterprises cook without the bones because they’re a pain to remove, but the taste is so much better when you cook with the bones, so the Dubois family leaves them in and accepts the extra work to produce a higher quality product. The 100 geese have produced about 175 pounds of rillettes.
After I survive my first day of butchering, we celebrate. When Danie, Guy, and I sit down for dinner, they present me with the fruits of our labor: foie cru. Raw goose liver. It’s spread on a piece of toast with salt and pepper. I can’t. I just can’t. My dad wouldn’t even eat that. But … it’s part of the experience. I take my first bite, trying to keep the foie on top of the toast so my tongue touches only the bread. There’s a faint metallic, bloody taste. I assure myself that whatever we’re having for dinner will pale in comparison. But I had forgotten -- we’re celebrating: Encore le foie! Our main course is a large piece of foie gras that’s been lightly seared on each side. Mon dieu. For the first time since I arrived, I go to bed hungry.
A Week Later
Today is my last day on the farm. Gilles has unloaded a truck of 400 baby goslings that will spend the next several months with plenty of space and lush green grass to enjoy. These animals are extremely well cared for. And when it’s time to butcher them, it’s humane and clean. I’m much more concerned about the slaughterhouses in Bakersfield, California, than French foie gras. Though I won’t eat foie gras when I return to the states, I will buy only local, grass-fed meat (and never be tempted by a late night Chicken McNugget).
Danie takes me to the train station and after a teary goodbye, races back home to put lunch on the table: grilled goose blood with a green salad.