Foie gras

A very famous Canadian has been making headlines in France this week. Pamela Anderson, ex-‘BabeWatch’ star and future Brigitte Bardot, has brought the sad plight of the geese and ducks of southwest France to the attention of l’Assemblée Nationale.

Some wag on a talk show joked that it was the first time in the history of parliament that all of its members showed up.

I first heard about le foie gras from my then-future husband, who regaled me with tales of his best-loved French foods. It came just after oysters and raw-milk cheese. I reacted like a typical North American.

“Fwah grah? What’s that?” I asked, making a face. “Fat liver?” He explained that duck or goose liver – paté as we English speakers insist on calling it – was considered a fine delicacy in France. “But don’t they force feed the geese?” He shrugged, muttering something about gastronomic tradition.

When it came time to taste my first foie gras, at table with his parents during a fancy dinner, I did so with a relatively open mind. By then I had experienced enough good French food to trust them when they said something was good. As tastes and textures went, it wasn’t bad. In fact, I developed a minor appreciation for the stuff, accompanied by toasted brioche and a sweeter white wine.

You cannot live in France without making certain value adjustments. Over the years my attitude on many subjects has adapted, from the time I first ate rabbit to raw meat and runny cheese. When it comes to foie gras I am on the fence.

Eating meat of any kind for me requires a sliding moral scale. I am opposed to cruelty in general and the factory farming of animals horrifies me. I shudder when I see the way our poor pigs are transported to slaughter, and at the thought of chickens in cages or of any animal that doesn’t see the light of day. When you look at the traditional production of foie gras, is it any more cruel than those practices?

Our daughter, who is studying to become a veterinarian, gave us a bit of a tongue lashing for serving foie gras over the holidays. So I think we will be giving it a miss in the future. And to be honest, it will be no great sacrifice. In fact, if I may make a small confession, one that will forever brand me as being decidedly un-French, I find myself increasingly enjoying the pleasures of a more plant-based diet. I still eat meat, along with cheese and eggs, but not as often and in smaller quantities.

The French mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of animal rights activists. They are more concerned about cultural traditions, gastronomy and jobs. This is not a particularly vegetarian-friendly culture, although the variety and quality of locally sourced fresh produce makes it entirely possible to pursue such choices here.

Foie gras is a delicacy that I can quite happily live without. I think my own foie will thank me. Not to mention a few hundred ducks.

What about you? Do you eat foie gras or consider it off limits?

This little piggy…

Dans le cochonWe all know where he went, and it’s one story that never ends well. At least not for the pig.

Le petit cochon goes to market all over France, and ends up in all kinds of dishes. Saucisson sec. Saucisse de Toulouse. Boudin. Pâté. As the saying goes, “Tout est bon dans le cochon.”

“Did you know that every part of the pig is edible?” asked my husband when we first moved to Lyon, feasting on the local specialty, cochonaille. In a pig’s ear! I did not know, nor did I particularly want to learn.

I knew that I loved bacon. I grew to enjoy its meatier cousin, les lardons. Nonetheless, I tried to limit my consumption of the pig – easier said than done, as the French tend to put a bit of pork in everything from lentils to quiche.

Now it seems that le cochon has gone not to market but to city hall; he’s even gone to school. This little piggy is square at the centre of a raging debate. One that touches on a subject very dear to French hearts. La cantine.

Education is national in France but school lunches are managed by the municipal council. That means that local notables get to decide what will be on the menu. French custom and national tradition demand a freshly prepared, hot midday meal to be offered to every school child at a modest price, no more than the cost of catering and serving it. Each local school has its system for collecting the money for the cantine, and those in low income brackets may qualify for a free lunch.

Whether or not pork should be on the menu in a country where so many do not eat it is a recurring question. The suggestion that petit Louis or Anaïs should be deprived of their sausage is profoundly shocking to some. Others claim that religious belief has no place in school and are appalled that fish should be offered on Friday, a hold over from the Catholic tradition. Why not allow an alternative, pork-free menu for Muslims and other non-pork eaters, others have dared to suggest?

Why not, indeed? And here’s another, even more radical thought: how about a vegetarian alternative? That would solve the pork problem and give all those so inclined a healthier menu alternative. I am certain that in English-speaking countries there are multiple gluten-free and non-allergenic options available.

I fear, however, that the mere mention of this idea may send the French calling, “wee wee wee wee all the way home.”

Without wishing to open a can of worms (especially over lunch) what are your thoughts? Pork or not?