Thank you, duck activists!

All those protests over foie gras may inadvertently improve Canadian cuisine

Thank you, duct activists!

Ryman Cabannes/SoFood/Corbis

News that the organizers of Ottawa’s Winterlude festival dinner on Feb. 4 were running scared from a handful of crazed ducks’ rights activists, and had asked the exuberantly indulgent Montreal chef Martin Picard to cook for their headline event without using any foie gras (he bowed out, instead), got me thinking about duck.

Specifically, about the very dark days ahead for all those Californian moulard ducks who have grown luxuriously accustomed to a little something extra for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their gravy train ends July 1, 2012, when the state legislature will enact a law that puts all Californian moulards on a sustenance diet and—in true Hollywood fashion—removes the welcome mat for all foreign-bred fatties, too.

You might say that what will happen next to the formerly trendsetting cuisine of California is anyone’s guess. But all you have to do to get a clear picture of the future is look to Australia, where foie gras production is prohibited, and its legal importation is strictly limited to cooked, prepared product.

For a taste of the Californian future, consider a dish I recently enjoyed at chef Justin North’s excellent Etch Restaurant, in Sydney, Australia. He called it a “Tasting of Aylesbury duck.” At one corner of the plate was some breast, lightly smoked over tea leaves, then pan-roasted until crisp-skinned and pink, sliced thin, and fanned out over a bed of daikon. Then there was a little confit, shredded and packed into a crisp pastry roll perched on a pool of rich aioli. Alongside, a square of unconventional rillettes, crisp-edged and surprisingly lean, but supple and flavoursome all the same. The final instalment was duck-egg custard, smooth, rich and infused to an intoxicating degree with Tasmanian truffle.

The dish was exquisite and imaginative. As I savoured it, that latter quality had me thinking about Canadian chefs, and how the easy and unthreatened availability of top-quality Quebec foie gras has possibly lulled too many of them into lazy complacency. For example, shortly before my trip Down Under, I found myself seated across a pub table from the executive chef at a top Toronto restaurant, who, discussing his upcoming new menu, suddenly blurted, “Man, am I ever sick of making ‘duck three ways.’ ”

Let me explain. “Duck three ways” has been a mainstay on posh North American menus for well over a decade now. No matter where you find it written, there will be no suspense as to what the three ways might be. One is roast duck breast, often magret (hopefully, cooked no more than medium-rare), another will be duck confit (hopefully, with crispy skin), and the third—the pièce de resistance—a small, seared escalope of foie gras.

One bird, three utterly different textures, and three distinct and magnificent flavours. It all adds up to such an obvious, perfect dish that no one remembers or cares who assembled it first. All that matters to chefs is that as long as you can stir up an appropriate (sweet and acidic) sauce for the trio—along with a competent starch and vegetable—you can make the dish your own. For the high-end restaurant, “duck three ways” is a gift, a perennial crowd pleaser that is easy to execute and commands top dollar to boot.

The only downside is that success dissuades new culinary thinking. Which is why I believe that California’s imminent culinary sacrifice will be our gain. While Australia is too distant to be a major influence here, California has long set local trends in motion. And when, in the absence of foie gras, necessity drives the invention of new duck dishes there, they will surely soon thereafter land here.

Meanwhile, we will continue to enjoy our foie gras—because ever since they had an unsuccessful go at raw milk cheese, Ottawa bureaucrats, however provincial, have at least been trained to never again alienate Quebec voters by trying to kill off one of their treasured industries. So when I look to our culinary future, I see new duck combinations like chef North’s four-way tasting—and then I add our fine foie gras, and arrive at a new norm: duck four, five, or even six ways! And to think that without people like those anti-Picard demonstrators in Ottawa, it might not ever have happened.

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Thank you, duck activists!

  1. "Specifically, about the very dark days ahead for all those Californian moulard ducks who have grown luxuriously accustomed to a little something extra for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "

    That is a strange characterization of what amounts to involuntary force-feeding of animals. I know you're trying to make light of it, but I'm guessing you would feel differently about someone shoving a funnel down your dog's throat and jamming food down it. Maybe foie-gras is tasty, but to me that taste would be marred by the knowledge that an animal was tortured to get produce it.

    • But the torture is what makes it taste so good! You can taste the fear. It's the same thing that makes veal so delicious.

      • i laughed

      • lol

      • This isn't remotely funny or accurate. "Fear" triggers adrenaline, which in turn makes the meat tough. Congratulations on being 1) a barbarian and 2) ignorant.

  2. Geez, by that logic, we should also ban beef, spaghetti, pizza, and all our staple dishes just so we can come up with new ones.

    Foie gras is produced in a humane way. The force-feeding is very quick and doesnt hurt the ducks if done properly. It's also only done in the last few weeks of a duck's life.

    Foie gras is also natural, in that migratory birds gorge themselves before long flights and store their energy in the liver. Force-feeding replicates this process in the farm.

    Oh, and it's mind-numbingly delicious.

    • Now thats more like it. I understand that we are forced into corners sometimes when enough people want change, but I dont think we should depend on these rioters to dictate what we should and should not have on our Canadian menus.

      In fact, we should be looking for ways to improve our menus and come up with new dishes, and not be looking to trim our menus based and on what we are going to ban next.

      If we really are one of the few countries allowing foie gras shouldnt we relish in this?

    • Sure, we like to think that "foie gras is produced in a humane way" (I'm looking at you 'Alfanerd' as we all like to think that all animals aren't inhumanely treated when they are butchered for their meat. Sadly, this just isn't the case. And your lack of knowledge on this subject scares me. I've been a vet for nearly 8 years, and my job is to specifically go into facilities where animals (cows, ducks, chickens) are being produced/butchered in mass to make sure everything is abiding by the rules. That is NEVER the case. The ducks have large tubes forced down their throat for up to 20 times a day for many weeks, and roughly 40% of the ducks die in these quantities because of poisoning. When you compare a liver of a normal duck, compared to that of a duck being produced for foie gras, the results are utterly horrific. The livers are up to 7X the size. How you, or anyone else can justify this is truly disturbing and sick. Just watch a video of it being done on YouTube and I'm pretty sure you'll be put off it for good. Nice try.

      • who's paying you for your comment?

      • She's right. I've seen a video on how it's done and its disgusting. Put me off it for good!

      • I've seen it done and it was done properly and was in no way painful to the ducks involved. Save your little scare stories for your PETA buddies, I dont buy your nonsense.

        • LOL…. Agree….If a lot of people were ever to tour a Slaughter House /processing plant…they would never,never, eat meat again….Same applies to a frozen produce plant, you'd think twice about buying frozen veggies…trust me I know …Just don't think about how Donald and Daisy duck met their demise,,,just dig in and enjoy………

        • And how would you know that it was not painful? You're some kind of duck whisperer or something?

          • 2 reasons: 1 based on my observation, the other based on what is known about duck anatomy.

            1. They did not look like they were in pain, in fact the ducks seemed to be asking to be fed.

            2. Duck's esophagi (plural of esophagus, if im not mistaken) is designed to have large objects inserted into it. Like a whole fish, with pointy fins and stuff.

      • Is foie gras being produced en masse? I don't think so – it's more likely a cottage industry. I stand to be corrected – if you know of mass production of it I'd like to know who the producers are? In Canada…

          • @ Matt…It really didn't look all that bad, they all appeared to be warm, and dry, each Duck had his own little place to live (short term lease ) and more than enough to eat…one little fellow seemed to be coming back for more…so I guess for the short time they are there its pretty comfy…….

  3. I try to respect the value of all species, and so I am a vegetarian, which is easy for me since I don't like meat (or poultry, pork or any seafood for those who think meat just means red meat, and are obsessed with semantics). I've never had foie gras so I have no basis on which to dispute its taste. I just live according to my own values, and take my hat off to the animal activists, with whom I agree completely, and who demonstrate in order to ban foie gras, expecting things to change. Isn't it said that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Even if it is banned, it'll just be overturned later. One only has to look at the seal hunting "industry" for an example.

    But I also agree with agjackk that we shouldn't rely on "these rioters" to ban foods, rather it should be each individual's choice. Although I may agree with Gandhi when he said "a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated", I live in a world with a net moral deficit, so how can I expect anything to change for the betterment of all? The vast majority of us are Philistines anyway. I guess I'll just continue on my merry way, going against the flow.

  4. I suspect that in my lifetime, the animal rights movement will prevail over carnivorous sentiments. This is a prospect I view with dread. That meat is delicious (duck liver and veal, especially so) is only part of the matter at hand. There is, of course, the profound misunderstanding of the concept of rights that associates any notion of animal rights.

    Liberal democracies assign and proscribe rights among other humans with a very consistent pattern. All humans have a set of rights and freedoms, except those that violate the rights of others (eg. criminals) and those without the ability to comprehend their own rights (the mentally challenged and children). Animals are incapable of observing the rights of others, and unable to understand any rights granted to them. Isn't that what people said about women and certain minority groups? Sure, but neither of those groups is biologically incapable of understanding either rights, or the responsibilities attached to them.

    Nor is the general position of animal rights activists even internally consistent. The first right of any being must be its right to not be killed by another. Such a right is a prerequisite for any other. If you accept that a being can be killed for its utility (eg. to be eaten), you are pretty much disclaiming any moral relevance. Nor have they thought through how

    The above poster's socially sensible attitude belies this same fallacy. If he honestly believed that eating meat was something like murder, one should think he WOULD be inclined to a little more than waiting for people to come around. When a society arbitrarily murders thousands of morally relevant individuals one has fairly legitimate grounds for armed rebellion. Oddly enough this is similar to pro-life activists, whose actions are similarly underwhelming given their claims of mass murder. No, instead the response is to be annoyingly preachy and selective in target. Animal rights activists zealously strive to save cute baby seals, but leave the cows to the slaughterhouse. Pro-life activists demonize liberal judges and abortion doctors, but tend to give a free pass to the women whom they believe are taking a hit out on their own progeny.

    Instead of wearing fur, animal rights activists wear slogans as high fashion. Their position is a statement of greater empathy toward us meat-eating trogladytes. This is why animal rights positions are so fraught with incoherence – justice is not the end they seek.

    • I am really, really stingy with giving the '' thumbs up '' reward unless a comment is really good…that being said, your comment deserves at least '' 3 '' thumbs up !!…..Just my humble opinion……

  5. My sentiments exactly. I don't think it's too much to ask that when we raise animals for our nourishment, we do it in a humane fashion. If people accept force-feeding (which is a long, unpleasant process–anyone who has ever had a tube shoved down their throat knows this), what ethical boundary is their on the mistreatment of animals? Should we condone cock-fights, dog fights, bull 'fights' (where a bull is stabbed many times with swords until they bleed to death)? What if beating dogs with sticks for months before you killed them made them extra tasty. Is that all the justification you need?

    • Even if we try and raise our nourishment in a humane way, the end result is in no way humane, we kill them…no campassion,,, nada,, zip, zero,,no last rites, no funeral…straight from the pen to the pan……

      • I don't agree that death is inherently inhumane. Organisms die all the time for the sustenance of other organisms. The alternative to a life and then death for human consumption is not 'freedom' for these animals. They wouldn't ever exist unless they were meant for human consumption. Between those alternatives, I think most would agree that humane treatment is likely the better alternative.

        I don't see what christian rituals have to do with animals, which aren't saddled with religious baggage.

        • Well, If I was a Duck and knew I was going to die, I think I would probably want to spill my guts to someone before I spilled my guts…so to speak …..

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