At La Ferme Basque (The Basque Farm), it’s all about keeping the ducks happy. And from the look of the dozens of fat Moulards sunning themselves in an outdoor meadow, it’s working.
In the verdant region of Charlevoix, a couple of hours north of Quebec City, Quebec, duck farmers Jean-Jacques (JJ) Etcheberrigaray and his wife, Isabel Mihura, raise their feathered charges with a “no stress” policy to produce high quality foie gras.
“These guys are happy campers,” says JJ, smiling broadly, gazing over the fence at the ducks.
That’s a bold claim in an industry criticized by animal rights activists for gavage, force feeding ducks and geese to produce the fatty liver required for the smooth-as-butter pate prized by foodies. However, La Ferme Basque doesn’t employ factory production to make its foie gras. Their products reflect a time-intensive labor of love.
Twelve years ago, the couple moved from the Basque region of France to this small farm near Bain-Saint-Paul in Quebec, bringing with them artisan techniques for raising ducks for foie gras and other products. Their ducks, a special cross of male Muscovy and female Pekin ducks, called Moulards, are large with a natural tendency to overeat and a chest pouch to store the extra food.
Space, Sunshine, Grass
JJ and Isabel receive the one-day-old ducklings from a hatchery in Quebec City. They use only males because they’re bigger and their livers are better suited for foie gras. The little ducks spend the first month snug in the heated barn. Then they’re released into “pantries,” large fenced outdoor pastures green with grass. “These ducks are just like cows,” JJ says. “They love grass and spend all their time grazing.”
The duck pantry in front of us doesn’t have a single blade of grass. The ducks have hungrily eaten it down to dirt in short order. The grassy pantry next door is where they’ll move next. In the meantime, like cows, they enjoy feed bins with forage and specially-designed water troughs that keep them from fouling the water.
“Unlike factory ducks,” says JJ, “our’s are free-range. They enjoy the sunshine, the grass, and grubbing for insects. Even in the barn, they have plenty of room to move around and stretch their wings.”
At three months old, now large and fat, the ducks move back into the big barn for 28 days where they’re fed re-hydrated corn twice a day. The two-meal-a-day cycle encourages the ducks to eat rapidly, storing fat in the liver. The chest pouch becomes swollen like a pelican’s.
Then comes the gavage, the force feeding. Unlike factory-produced ducks, the Basque gavage process is gentle. JJ and Isabel sit each duck in their laps. Working quickly and smoothly, they insert the gavage tube to give each duck extra corn to fatten the liver. It takes only seconds. “It’s quick,” says JJ. “We don’t stress them.”
In fact, JJ and Isabel are so concerned about maintaining a stress-free environment for their charges, we’re not allowed to enter the gavage barn. “They don’t know you,” he explains, grinning a little sheepishly.
After the ducks are dispatched by a firm in Quebec City, JJ and Isabel harvest the liver, the meat, and fat from the ducks. They waste nothing, using all the parts of the duck. It’s a way to honor the animals.
In a small boutique across from the duckling barn, Isabel has set out samples of rillette (shredded confit duck leg and neck meat), a terrine of rillette and foie gras, and foie gras, a smooth pate of duck liver that’s half cooked at a low temperature. The chewy rillette is rich with the pronounced flavor of duck fat. The terrine has the toothiness of confit meat with the silky richness of foie gras. And the foie gras, ah the foie gras, is like eating silk, a creamy, buttery concoction with a mild mineral flavor. It melts on my tongue and I reach for a sample again and again. After tasting this foie gras, I don’t even flinch at the $95/liter price tag.
In addition to selling foie gras in their boutique, JJ and Isabel supply several local restaurants in Charlevoix with duck products. A few miles from La Ferme Basque, Le Mouton Noir (The Black Sheep) Restaurant serves La Ferme Basque sliced duck breast cooked Morrocan style. At 3 Canards, tgheir Basque foie gras shows up in thered deer dish and adds depth and richness to the juicy meat.
Later, at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, we share a meal at the chef’s table where Chef Patrick Turcot offers us thick slabs of La Ferme Basque foie gras topped with coarse cracked pepper and served with tiny toasts.
“The ducks that produce this foie gras are free-range,” says Chef Patrick, whose menu boasts local products. “They get to run around and see the sun and the sky. They eat corn, not mash, and it produces a much better texture for the foie gras.”
As I smear a crispy piece of bread with foie gras, I couldn’t agree more. It’s deliciously ducky. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
For more about the Charlevoix region: www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/charlevoix0.html