Foie For All
Julie Mautner / September 11th, 2012
A clever restaurateur in St. Rémy de Provence, France, has capitalized on the foie gras controversy in the United States by offering a free foie gras first course to anyone who shows a valid California ID.
Jean-Claude Corda, who bought the popular 150-seat Le Bistrot des Alpilles more than ten years ago, launched the promo in mid-July, roughly two weeks after the ban forbidding the production or sale of foie gras in California took effect. At press time—one month into the promo—Corda said 50 or so people had taken him up on the offer, which he planned to run through October.
At Le Bistrot des Alpilles, the foie gras starter normally sells for €14 ($18) and is served with typical accompaniments such as grilled bread and chutney. Corda buys the product from Maison Masse, a highly regarded producer in the Périgord region.
“California sees itself as a trendsetter,” Corda says, “and we wish to do the same in our own way by inviting Californians to discover, for free, a typically French meal, from a famous company, Maison Masse, makers of foie gras for generations. And since the ‘gastronomic meal of the French,’ with its rituals and presentations, was registered in 2010 on UNESCO's World Heritage List of Cultural Treasures, we want to keep this traditional French dish in the American mentality.” (See Not Just a Meal, January/Feburary 2011.)
The free foie gras offer has gotten considerable press in France, in La Provence, Madame Figaro, Cuisine Actuelle, and other publications. Within the restaurant itself, it’s promoted in English directly on the menu.
On July 1, the state of California put into effect a law originally signed in 2004 prohibiting “the manufacture and sale” of foie gras. Many chefs have taken the French delicacy off their menus, while others are ignoring the ban, hoping that regulatory agencies are too busy to chase after them and impose the $1,000 fine. Still others are using loopholes to work around the restriction, by offering toast and chutney “with complimentary foie gras” or promoting “BYOF” (Bring Your Own Foie). If you supply the foie gras, they’ll cook it “free” and charge you for the go-withs.
This is currently the only ban of its type in the U.S., although Chicago had a similar one reversed after two years after going into affect in 2006.
The controversy stems, of course, from the way in which foie gras is produced: the animals are force-fed by tube to enlarge their livers and produce a silky texture, in a practice known as gavage. A full report on the foie gras dispute appears in Foie and It's Discontents on Food Arts.com.
A month after the California ban went into effect, producer Michael Ginor, co-owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, New York, was surprisingly upbeat. “We're actually having our best year yet,” he says. “Because of all the PR which foie gras has received…sales are higher as awareness is heightened. And chefs in California are still finding ‘creative’ ways to offer foie gras to their customers so sales there have not greatly diminished.”
“We’ve never sold as much foie gras in California as we have since the ban,” chimes in Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan, the New Jersey–based purveyor who sells foie gras, game, and other products to top chefs nationwide. “Please let the farmers do their jobs and raise ducks for foie gras the right way, humanely and without stress, as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Didn’t we learn anything from Prohibition?”
Meanwhile, Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras—the sole California foie gras farm–shut down production on July 1. Owners Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez weren’t available for comment but are reportedly on hold, awaiting the outcome a pending lawsuit charging the State of California with interfering with interstate commerce. Also anxiously awaiting the outcome is Laurel Pine, owner of Mirepoix USA, another purveyor of luxury foodstuffs. Pine moved from Napa Valley to Reno, Nevada, last year in anticipation of the ban and says she plans to set up outposts along the border where Californians can legally buy foie gras. “In the meantime, Californians are buying foie gras directly from me in Reno,” she reports.
More than a dozen countries, including Britain, Germany, Israel, and South Africa, have essentially outlawed the production (but not the sale) of foie gras. For now, however, France continues to produce it, sell it, and savor it in many forms. And for two months in late summer, a handful of tourists and expats seemed delighted to enjoy it with the complements—and compliments—of one quick-thinking restaurateur.