It is 45 minutes to dinner. My husband, Arnold, and I are standing ankle deep in French muck -- beige and runny like potter's slip-glaze, but startlingly acrid to our noses -- confronting a moral dilemma. Our host, Madame Etchegoyan, has just removed her feeding funnel from duck No. 13. She is persuading her flock to turn their brown, normal livers into pale, engorged, exquisite-tasting giants -- the very same ambrosial, melt-in-the-mouth foie gras that we had sampled at her dinner table the evening before.
That's when we had arrived, unannounced, at 6 p.m. looking for lodgings outside the dot-sized Basque town of Arhansus. Unruffled, she showed us a room on the first floor, at the back of her large farmhouse, then asked us not whether we wanted dinner, but at what time. We liked her at once; here was a woman who understood from our ravenous but droopy appearance that we needed large quantities of good food but didn't want to go searching to find it. She wanted only to verify our foreign palates: Foie gras? Garbure? Confit? A oui to each segued into a nationalities guessing game: Were we Anglais? Allemands? Irlandais? Her teenage son offered Australians? Then they ran out of countries. Amiricains had never visited this remote spot in the Pyrenees before. Astonished but delighted, she welcomed us into her home.
At the family dinner, we were launched into food lover's heaven on the first sublime morsel of fattened duck liver. It was difficult, even with faltering French and full mouth, to curtail our praise. Monsieur Etchegoyan beamed and boasted, "Maison fait!" -- made right there, by Madame. We quit raving about the foie gras only long enough to devour the rest of the meal: rich regional vegetable soup, preserved duck with tiny fried potatoes, baby garden salad, farm cheese, crjpes -- everything "maison fait," everything delicious. While we stuffed ourselves, we fielded questions about hamburgers and handguns and interrogated them on foie gras making. How was it done? How could anything as common as a duck's liver taste this exalted? Their vague responses succeeded only in conjuring up visions of Madame E. endlessly dipping into her apron and tossing zillions of handfuls of corn to exceptionally hungry, exceedingly lucky ducks.
Dinner done at midnight, with bellies bursting, we were unconscious within moments in our room facing the chicken coops. But the fowl noises and smells must have contaminated some echoing snippets of our mealtime conversation, producing for me a vivid and unsettling dream. I saw my own mother -- her Bronx accent eerily French -- metamorphosed into a Basque harridan who nudged and crammed her skinny ducklings with more than they could possibly hold. She began softly, with encouraging coaxing, clucking noises. When that failed, she cried out -- how often I'd heard this --"Babies are starving all over the world and you do not like my cooking?" This guilt trip worked magic on the dream ducks, just as it used to on me: Willingly, they ate and they ate until their little livers puffed and ballooned and began to explode, like dried corn in a hot pan, in front of my closed eyes. I opened them -- smiling with relief when I heard only the chickens clucking and pecking outside our windows.
The following morning, Monsieur E., his teenage son and his farmer brother joined us at the breakfast table. Innocently, we opted for the same meal the men were served daily -- an option that has since replaced the word "continental" with "monumental" whenever I think of French breakfasts. We each ate a fried farm egg, house-made Bayonne ham (rubbed with local peppers from nearby Espelette), house-cured bacon and an entire baguette (which the Basques held against their chests to slice). A carafe of strong coffee was placed between my husband and me, alongside a juice pitcher of boiled raw milk. The men also had large pitchers in front of them, but these contained red wine, which they polished off, one juice glass at a time.
Madame E. took only tea. Finished with her morning chores, she sat
with us and talked foie gras. We learned she fed 60 ducks at a time
during a two-week fattening process. The feed, 100 kilos (220 pounds) of
corn and one cup of salt, was pressure-cooked, by her -- maison-fait again! -- every morning. Methodically, the daily feedings were increased: 10
ounces, morning and
evening, on Day 1; three and a third pounds, morning and evening, by
What appetites these birds had! Curiosity overpowering us, we
finally asked to watch how this sublime delicacy was achieved. Madame, to
our surprise, looked reluctant, but Monsieur beamed once more and
complemented me on my use of precisely the right word. He said it was the
delicacy of her touch in feeding the ducks that made them eat much more
than others -- himself included -- could persuade them to. (I surveyed our
breakfast plates and worried for our own livers; were we incubating two
more sitting ducks for Madame E.'s rich foods and delicate insistence?)
Arrangements were made to observe that evening's feeding.
We arrive in the duck barn promptly at 7 p.m. There is a waist-high
open platform divided into two back-to-back rows of 30 individual wire
cages from which 60 duck heads protrude. On the floor, under each
animal, is a mountain of putty-like guano almost reaching the cage wires.
The smell is revolting. Madame E., garbed in a large plastic apron, has just
begun but is already splattered -- face, arms, apron -- with streaks of this
putty. An overhead track runs the length of the platform; attached to it,
dangling from a bungee-like cord, is a feeding funnel with an 18-inch
shaft. Madame E. grabs a head and deftly inserts the tube into the open beak
in one double-quick move. The end of the spout is somewhere deep inside the
bird. She plops a huge amount of feed -- it is almost Day 14 -- into
the cone, then hits a switch. The funnel vibrates noisily as the food is
mechanically pushed through it, into the gut of the duck. The tube is
removed; the animal is dazed, immobilized, barely alive. I think, "What
nasty business I'm watching." My face must reflect this. Madame looks up
and quietly echoes my thought. "C'est méchant, non?" Then she moves
delicately down the line.
A duck is 4 months old at the end of this frenzy. Madame E.
inserts a kitchen knife into the beak and slits the roof of the mouth. She
removes the liver, keeps it and the bird on ice, hoses and disinfects the
barn and personally delivers her product. The grossly enlarged,
creamy-yellow liver weighs between one and two pounds and will grace
some of the region's finest menus.
Foie gras is the supreme fruit of gastronomy and Madame E. produces
the choicest fruit on the vine. She keeps only 10 livers, but as many as
60 ducks a year for family eating. The livers are too dear to withhold
more; their tasty
incubators are more affordable. The following day she ushers 60 new
birds into her barn.
In the fantasies of a foolish, squeamish American, foie gras making
was a Walt Disney production with folksy overtones. The reality is harsh.
But delicate Madame E. understands her business very well; a farmer's life
just doesn't happen to be a dream.
She moves down the line. We leave the barn to prepare for dinner.