In Spain's south west, on the edge of ancient oak forests, a gaggle of geese quietly graze. They wander under wild olive, fig and pear trees, foraging the earth for late-season windfalls. Sensing our arrival, they honk, flock together and waddle away over the brow of the hill. This is the free-range life of Eduardo Sousa's geese, perhaps the most famous flock of geese on the planet. They eat what they like, when they like, and, unlike other geese and ducks farmed for their livers, they will never be force-fed. From these geese will come foie gras that is sought by chefs across Europe and the US, goose liver that has been fed to President Obama and costs up to $700 a kilogram. It is being hailed as "ethical foie gras" and touted as a future model of farming for an industry that is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Sousa's family has been making pâté since 1812 through its company, La Patería de Sousa. The pâté, made from the livers of pigs fattened on acorns for jamón, is the lifeblood of the company. The foie gras production is Sousa's pet project to bring back a way of farming once popular in Extremadura, to inject "some fun" into his business and create an outstanding ethical product. In 2006, his free-range foie gras was awarded the Coup de Coeur prize for innovation at the SIAL international food salon in Paris. The award upset Marie-Pierre Pé, the secretary general of the French committee of foie gras producers, or Cifog, who was reported as saying at the time: "this [product] cannot be called foie gras because [foie gras] is strictly defined as a product from an animal which has been fattened". By French law, foie gras must come from a goose or duck which has been force-fed using gavage for at least four weeks. This is a method that sees prepared grain meal pumped through a tube into the bird's oesophagus, an approach condemned by animal rights activists around the globe. Sousa responded by saying: "We have won a prize in Paris where the jury has given [the French] a clip round the ears because we have shown that you can make a good foie gras without mistreating the animals." Knowing the French were on the back foot, he added: "It's normal that they have asked for their prize back because they are scared." Sousa continues to label his goose livers "foie gras".
The Sousa family farm is in one of the most remote parts of Spain - the Badajoz province, close to the Portuguese border in Extremadura. The road leading from the nearby town of Fuente de Cantos is littered with deserted monastic buildings and the ruins of a hilltop castle. Sousa makes his pâté and processes the livers of his geese in a tiny factory in Pallarés, a village comprising little more than a cluster of buildings on a crossroad in the wild countryside. From the factory, Sousa takes us across the little creek, past the old mule-powered pump house to the 19th-century family farmhouse. Late winter snow lingers in patches in the shade. Inside, Sousa's wife Jacinta Mayoral is preparing lunch. A lunch of goose. "Goose liver was the food of the bishops," explains Sousa. "It was a luxury for the clergy during the monastic era," he says. "The fat was rendered from the flesh and used by the nuns in their baking instead of lard or butter."
We settle at a great wooden table. Sousa casually places a brazier of embers under the table to take the chill from the air. The occasional honk from the geese outside can be heard. Mayoral places a plate of hojaldres on the table - roti-like pastries made from flour, yeast and beer, layered with goose fat. Stuffed with béchamel, flecked with sweetbreads and pieces of goose breast, rolled in sesame seeds then pan-fried, they're quite stunning.
"We never touch our geese," says Sousa. "We give them some corn to help them gain weight and add some colour to the livers, otherwise they're too red." The corn is grown organically in the neighbouring province of Huelva. "As you see, they are free to roam," he says, "they can fly away if they want to. But here they are safe." The birds nest at night protected from foxes and wild cats by guard dogs. Sousa goes back to the fire and returns with a small steel pot that has been quietly simmering on the edge of the flame. In it are goose breasts that have been prepared as confit in extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and red wine. They're dense, tender, sweet and luscious.
In a frying pan on the stove are two lobes of fresh foie gras. They're given a flash of intense heat and then slid onto the plate, yellow and firm. There's a delicate crust on them, and the taste is nutty, something like roasted corn kernels but more complex. There's the richness of fine egg yolks, the gaminess of bird and, despite that richness, a clean finish and a liveliness and freshness that I have never tasted in other foie gras, fresh or pasteurised. It's not a classic foie gras. This is a completely different product.
"Our birds breed in the wild, are hatched in the wild and live as wild free animals," says Sousa. "They follow their natural instincts and gorge themselves in preparation for the migration a month or so after Christmas." In the weeks before they are due to take wing, their behaviour changes and they begin to work out the flock order. Then they begin to feed day and night in preparation for the journey. "That's when we know the geese are ready for harvest." The resulting livers are large and fatty and about three times the size of the goose's normal liver but not the five to six times achieved by the gavage, or force-feeding method.
Although fresh foie gras is not allowed into Australia, the preserved product is. Placed in a hermetically sealed jar, whole lobes are seasoned and pasteurised and shipped in refrigerated containers to Sydney where Clayton Wright, the man who first imported jamón into Australia, now distributes them to delicatessens and restaurants.
Back in Extremadura, Sousa's wife returns with a plate of bonbons. Feather-light and delicious, they're made with almonds, flour, eggwhites and cinnamon. "And goose fat," adds Sousa.
La Patería de Sousa free-range foie gras is imported into Australia by Clover Valley Meat Company, (02) 9313 5228.
PHOTOGRAPHY RICHARD CORNISH
This article is from the July 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine.