The drive from Toulouse to La Ferme de Souleilles took about 90 minutes and led us through some of our favorite landscapes in this southwestern corner of France. After a short stretch on the highway, we exited into the Lot-et-Garonne Department where a slowly winding road took us through the region’s small and rounded hills.
The department remains deeply rural, and so we passed through occasional small towns and viewed scattered farmhouses in the distance. Within about 2 km of Souleilles, we began to see bright red and yellow signs indicating that we were headed in the right direction.
Pulling into the farm on a November weekend, we seemed to be the only ones visiting. This was a bit more than a random day trip for us. I had come to meet owner Yves Boissière as part of my research for a magazine story on foie gras that would be published in Alta magazine. While there are hundreds of foie gras farms in the region, I had become intrigued with this one because it also happened to be home to the Museum of Foie Gras.
Walking into the boutique, we were surrounded by shelves loaded with the rich, fatty delicacy. Owner Yves Boissière greeted us with a smile that wouldn’t have been seen if it wasn’t so large. Boissière has a bold, white mustache that dominates his face and contrasts with the dark hair on top. When his mouth opens, out comes a thick regional accent.
The southern part of France was once dominated by the Occitanie people who spoke Occitan, a close cousin of Spain’s Catalan, before a religious crusade led by French nobles imposed the invaders’ language and culture. Boissière’s punctuated accent sounds almost Spanish, and the store is decorated with Occitanie flags and symbols. Indeed, “Souleilles” is the Occitan word for “sunny.”
“We are proud of our Occitanie heritage,” he said. “Part of our project here is to transmit that history and culture.”
Foie gras education
Boissière opened the museum almost 10 years ago, in part to explain the history and culture of foie gras to French as well as international visitors. A ticket costs about $5 and he averages about 15,000 visitors annually.
That economic boost adds to the foie gras business to make sure the farm’s 17 employees, including his wife and children, can make a solid living and remain in the place they love. “This is the land of my family, this is the land of my parents, and this the land of my grandparents,” he said. “So we are able to stay here, and show the sweat and work that goes into making foie gras.”
For an hour, Boissière gave us a personal tour of the museum. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, as I’d been lured into plenty of French tourist trips that sounded impressive in their description but turned out to be a few card tables and brochures. But Boissière’s museum was very much worthy of that word.
The exhibits began with posters demonstrating foie gras’ origin in Egypt, and then tracing it to the Romans, its spread by Jewish travelers, and its growth in France. Foie gras is about more than the foie gras. It’s about the whole duck.
Boissière said foie gras is primarily made in the southwest because the mild climate is better for the ducks. And when they kill the duck, the goal is to use every part of it. Much of it is transformed into meat products, but even the feathers get used for products such as pillows.
“All food that we put on the table has its tradition and its history,” he said. Personally, that begins with his grandfather who was a prisoner of war in World War II, and who started the farm and to whom he’s dedicated the museum.
Fiercely proud of this territory, Bossière claimed that the people in this region are the healthiest in France. While the French in the north cook with butter, and those in the southeast cook with olive oil, this region favors duck fat. That, plus the local wines heavy with tannins, help unclog arteries. “We are the champions when it comes to cholesterol,” he said. “They call it the French paradox. But it’s not the French paradox. It’s the Gascogne paradox!”
Inevitably, the conversation came to the most controversial part of foie gras. The force feeding, or “gavage” comes over the last 16 days of the duck’s life. This follows a gradual increase in feeding over several weeks before the “gavage”, which requires a tube be inserted into the duck’s throat and the farmer to pour the feed directly into it’s stomach.
Animal rights groups have called this cruel and have been fighting for the stuff to be banned. Indeed, such a ban went into effect just before we moved out of California. Bossière even shows us a copy of a local paper on display from 2015 hailing a federal court decision overturning the foie gras ban. Following several appeals, the ban has since gone back into effect.
When it comes to this subject, Bossière doesn’t get angry. Rather, the ban in his mind is an indicator of how the world has changed, and how people over time have become more distant from their roots, with little knowledge about how things are made or from where their food comes. The Egyptions discovered foie gras centuries earlier when they killed the animals for their livers. Animals such as ducks and geese naturally stuff themselves in anticipation of long winter migrations, and so their stomachs are elastic and built to accommodate large feedings.
He contrasts the artisanal approach his small farm takes to that of industrial foie gras farms in Eastern Europe, which have expanded rapidly in recent years. In these operations, the gavage is shorter, and more intense, involving various hormones and chemicals to accelerate growth. The result is cheaper foie gras that has found its way into France’s large supermarket chains.
“More than anything, it is about the change in society over the last 50 years,” he said. “Because we were a much more rural society 50 years ago. And people today, if they want meat, they buy it and put in the refrigerator. But 50 years ago, if you wanted meat or chicken, you had to bring it home and kill it and then remove the feathers and cook it. And you taught your children how to do this. Today, everything is done in a factory. And when people see the gavage, they don’t understand it. And the people are shocked by the gavage.”
Price vs. quality
He continued: “This is the dictatorship of the supermarket. It’s the supermarkets that want foie gras cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. And that poses a problem because then it has to be from a factory. Here, we are not affected by that because we do traditional gavage, and everything is done here.”
This is certainly true no matter where we have lived. People have little idea how their food is grown or processed and what it contains. For more than a decade, I lived in North Carolina where industrial hog farming had turned the eastern part of the state into a grotesque menagerie of hog farms and animal waste lagoons. Across the U.S. South, employees, increasingly immigrants, work in chicken processing plants in dangerous conditions creating food products that are also full of bacteria.
Since living in France, I’ve found it curious that American animal and food rights groups have fought for bans on foie gras, a food sold in only the smallest quantities in the U.S., and not on hog or chicken processing systems that play a far larger role in the average American’s daily diet.
Boissière is hoping that by educating more people about his artisanal and family farm, a place where the animals roam free most of the year and feed themselves naturally for most of their lives, his emphasis of quality over quantity will change some minds about foie gras.
“My feeling is to return to quality, and things that are logical,” he continued. “And find a way out of the dictatorship of price, price, price. Yes, it’s more expensive if we don’t use chemicals. But it’s necessary to think in a different way. Because this way, maybe people don’t get as sick and have to spend as much at the pharmacy later. The society of consumption pushes people to spend their money on things they don’t need. And if they just spent their money on eating well, and eating high quality, then this would be much more logical, and they would be happier and healthier.”