No matter how much you love the rich flavour of foie gras, seared to perfection or rolled into a silken torchon, there's always the nagging issue of gavage – the controversial practice of force-feeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers. But on Quebec's Île d'Orléans, chef and organic farmer Jacques Legros has created his own way of producing the delicious liver, no force-feeding required.
" Venez, venez, venez," Mr. Legros calls as a gaggle of fat-bottomed, white and brown geese waddle noisily toward him.
The gangly Mr. Legros is a fanatic about health – both personal and planetary – and raises his free-run flock at Au Goût d'Autrefois with sustainability in mind. His organic farm and homey restaurant, just outside Quebec City, is a destination for conscientious food lovers, a place to indulge in foie gras, rillettes, tender slow-smoked goose breast and fresh produce, all produced without chemicals or fossil fuels.
"Everything is done by hand – no machines or motors here," he says, digging a massive clump of parsley from the ground and gathering some Brussels sprouts for our late fall lunch.
Over the honking of his flock, Mr. Legros describes how he began to develop an "ethical" method of producing foie gras eight years ago by crossing different breeds of geese to create a particularly voracious bird.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, traditional foie gras farms raise birds outdoors for three to four months, then fatten them over three weeks of twice-daily force-feeding with corn. While migrating wild ducks and geese naturally gorge to enlarge their livers each fall – the fuel for their long flights – it's the artificial force-feeding, using long tubes inserted into the domestic birds' gullets, that has led to animal rights protests. Several European countries, including Italy, Austria and Denmark, have banned force-feeding of ducks and geese. California's ban goes into effect mid-2012.
Instead of force-feeding, Mr. Legros takes advantage of his birds' natural inclination to gorge. "When it's cold at night the geese will eat more, producing fat for winter," he says. "I use this natural reflex and I give them food that they love."
They're fed a whole-grain diet of wheat, barley, oats and corn throughout their lives. The birds are naturally programmed to eat more as the temperature drops in the fall, he says, and in the final weeks before they go to the abattoir, he limits their regular food and begins hand-feeding the geese and ducks every hour with his high-energy ration of boiled corn and molasses.
His method is far more costly than the traditional one. "Last year I spent $20,000 more on grain, compared to what I would spend if I force-fed them for just two weeks."
The livers are smaller than those produced by force-feeders – about 400 grams compared with one kilogram or more – but Mr. Legros's system also produces exquisitely flavourful grain-fed duck and goose breasts, the kind he serves at his restaurant and sells to chefs in Quebec City and Montreal. He also sells jars of goose, duck and wild turkey rillette, cassoulet, confit and foie gras mousse from the farm. (A 120-ml pot of goose liver mousse costs $12, while his sous-vide duck confit is $48.95 per kg, and his special marinated and smoked goose breast sells for $14.50 per 100 grams.)
"It's like a gift – the taste of the breast from these animals is exceptional," he says.
At the farmhouse restaurant, Mr. Legros and his partner Lise Marcotte serve up tastes of the farm with multi-course, hyper-local tasting menus. "Ninety per cent of what we serve here is from the farm," he says. "In my kitchen there is no spice, only sea salt, and I cook at very low temperatures to maximize the flavours and protect all of the healthy nutrients and natural enzymes," he says.
The trio of duck, goose and wild turkey rillette we start with offers a fascinating flavour comparison: The shreds of his wild turkey, slow-cooked in duck fat, is pleasantly gamey, while the duck and dark goose meat are doubly rich, all mounded on platters to spread on crisp toast.
The sliced magret, marinated in local apple cider and maple syrup then slow-smoked over an apple-wood fire, is ruby-coloured, rare and sweet. The potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots from his garden are also luxuriously sautéed in goose and duck fat – both, he claims, have a cholesterol-lowering profile similar to olive oil. A simple dessert of maple syrup and fluffy whipped duck egg whites offers a delicate contrast to the meaty meal.
The chef just seems to be a natural nurturer, equally happy delivering his rustic dishes as he is digging in his garden or feeding his flock.
"I love animals, I love gardens and I love people," he says. "It's very important to me to have your satisfaction, but I have to respect my animals. I have to make something good with them."
Special to the Globe and Mail