A cacophony of honking, hissing, and quacking washes over me like a tidal wave. Three dozen fat ducks and geese, barely penned by a portable mesh fence, welcome visitors at A Taste of Yesterday (Au goût d’autrefois) Farm and Restaurant. We’re here on bucolic Orleans Island, just a skip away from Quebec City, to meet Jacques Legros, the man who produces some of the best foie gras in Canada.
Jacques’ ducks and geese are given the run of the place at A Taste of Yesterday Farm because he doesn’t want his birds to experience any stress.
“We respect the animals,” explains Jacques, a tall, Ichabod Crane thin man with shoulder-length hair and a thick French accent. “We work with nature, not against it.”
Foie gras, French for “fat liver,” is the delicately rich food product made from duck or goose liver that has been specially fattened, usually through force feeding the animals corn. This “gavage,” which is actually dictated by law in France, is what’s made foie gras production a lightening rod in recent years, pitting animal rights activists against foodies unwilling to give up the popular delicacy.
Jacques doesn’t use force feeding. Yet he produces foie gras so highly so acclaimed that chefs from many top restaurants in Quebec clamor for it.
Out in the barnyard, the geese and ducks follow Jacques like little children. For them, he’s Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Father Goose all rolled into one.
He doesn’t allow pesticides or other chemicals or gas-powered machines on the farm, which explains the shaggy lawn. His neighbors’ properties are trimmed pin-neat. Not A Taste of Yesterday. The yard in front of the 200-year-old farmhouse grows wild with weeds, native grasses, bushes, and trees. An old wooden sled sits crumbling near the front door and an incongruous line of antique dining chairs, paint peeling and seats missing, greets visitors on one side of the driveway.
“When we arrived here eight years ago, the soil was no good,” says Legros, who formerly worked in wildlife preservation. “The land was compacted and the dirt had no worms in it.”
Now the land has lots of worms and grubs and weeds and grasses that Jacques’ flocks enjoy as they roam about, stretching their wings and honking and quacking in the island’s fresh air. The birds, in turn, fertilize the land with their droppings.
Jacques doesn’t give his fowl hormones or antibiotics. He handles the young ones right after birth, looking into their eyes so that they imprint on him and aren’t fearful. They’re not afraid. After all, they think he’s dad.
He’s carefully bred his flock, selecting for birds that naturally eat more and whose meat is the most flavorful. Unlike other producers who feed their flocks on grass and then grain feed them for a couple of weeks, Jacques feeds his feathered friends five different kinds of grain for up to eight months.
It’s also expensive. Jacques spends about $26,000 extra each season on his grain smorgasbord.
“It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for them,” he says, smiling. “They get used to eating like this every day.”
The Long, Cold Night
When the fall cold sets in and the nights become dark and frigid, Jacques suddenly stops feeding his charges for 24 hours. The fowl, accustomed to eating a rich, grain-based diet, become anxious and increasingly hungry. Jacques sits in the cold talking with them, comforting them.
After many interminable hours, the long hungry night is finally over.
In the dim light of morning, Jacques appears in the barn with a bucket of boiled corn soaked in molasses. The ducks and geese crowd around him, vying for food. He begins hand feeding them, just a little, making sure each animal gets a taste.
When the bucket is empty, he stops. The hungry birds want more, but Jacques resists their plaintive honking and quacking.
An hour later, Jacques returns with another bucket. The hungry ducks and geese gobble up the grain, naturally fattening their livers for what will become foie gras. He’ll smoke the meat into succulent, sweet threads and render the duck fat, wasting nothing.
Jacques returns again and again, every hour, for several days. He ignores the cold and fatigue. He’s on a mission: to keep his birds fat and happy and make the best foie gras in the world.
Each time Jacques feeds them, the birds rapidly chow down, eating faster and faster to ensure they get their share. By the time he finishes the process, his charges are veritable eating machines, happily munching vast quantities of the sweet corn mixture and creating foie gras that has a unique rich and yet clean taste.
As I head for my car, the sounds of ducks and geese ring in my ears. The leaves are golden and the air has a crisp nip to it. Soon it will be time for Jacques to begin the long, cold process of hand feeding the ducks and geese his special corn mixture.
Is it all worth it? Well, Jacques recently won a Prize for Excellence from the Association of Tourism and Agrotourism Gourmand (Association de l’Agrotourisme) for his food products.
But if you really want to know, just ask the ducks and geese who call Jacques Legros Father Goose. www.augoutdautrefois.qc.ca
— Text and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, posted 11/8/2011