Penelope Walsh discovers how Blue Flame answers the controversy of foie gras with an ethical alternative.
Foie gras is as popular in Dubai as it is controversial in most of the rest of the world. Global gourmands from cities such as London and New York may notice when dining in Dubai the relative prevalence with which it appears on restaurant menus in this city. Our capital, in fact, went a step further last year, when the Mercure Centre Hotel Abu Dhabi hosted a two week foie gras festival in celebration of this controversial ingredient. That’s not something you’d see in California, where the sale and production of foie gras has even been prohibited by law. And yet when recently asked by Time Out, Dubai’s chefs were largely (and we concede unsurprisingly) unavailable to comment on why and how they serve this ingredient.
So where does the controversy lie? This luxury food item, which literally means ‘fat liver’ in French is notable for its higher fat content than other equivalent farmed birds and animals. For the diner, this results in a rich, creamy consistency, which in addition to the cost of foie gras, has lead to the product having a caché as the ultimate dining decadence. The high fat content, however, has been reported in many cases to be created by force feeding the goose for a 14-day period in a manner that is largely considered to be brutal, using tubing inserted directly into the goose’s throat.
This month, in a move that is ground-breaking for Dubai, steakhouse Blue Flame in the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel introduces a new brand of ‘ethical’ foie gras to the menu. We met with Hilary Langdon, executive sous chef at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, who has been involved in sourcing the product from Belgium suppliers Nivo Finess and developing its use on the menu, to discuss this change in the restaurant’s policy.
Foie gras in any form, we learn from Hilary, is not in fact a new addition to the menu. Despite Blue Flame’s commitment to sustainability in its fish selection and inclusion of local produce on the menu where possible, the restaurant has served ‘normal’ foie gras on the menu for some time. ‘It was the demand. When people go to a steakhouse they expect to see foie gras on the menu and we had so many requests that we put it on the menu,’ Hilary explains. The motivation for changing this, we’re told, was simply the knowledge that an ethically sourced variety could be found on the market. ‘We were very lucky to find the Nivo foie gras, because it brings the foie gras on our menu in line with our concept nicely.
A representative from Nivo flew over from Belgium with samples. As soon as we found out that it was available, we’ve been waiting for the product to get Halal certified so that we can serve it. I don’t think anybody else has used it over here.’
Nivo Finess states that in contrast to an average foie gras liver size of 1kg, the livers it produces are on average only 500g. So what makes this difference? Usually, Hilary confirms, the goose is force fed. ‘That’s how they get the fullness of the liver. The geese are a little bit older than the normal foie gras, because it takes longer for the livers to get ripe. They roam free, rather than forcing them into cages and they are fed fresh corn. Geese naturally want to eat a lot, and if the food is there they’ll eat it. So the food is thrown out for them and they will keep eating as they please. The geese are a little bit older than the normal foie gras, because it takes longer for the livers to get ripe.’
The Nivo geese are fed over a longer period of time to achieve a similar effect to more traditional foie gras. ‘They are still overeating, because their liver gets enlarged, Hillary says, ‘which is a natural function of the body as it processes the food and breaks it all down.’
The overeating, however, occurs as a result of the goose’s own natural appetites, rather than forced human brutality. It is the difference, perhaps, between a gluttonous Dubai bruncher and a suffragette; perhaps neither is particularly healthy, but there is a clear lesser of the two evils to choose.
In this light, the choice between ethical and other foie gras, is essentially the same questions as which eggs you buy in the supermarket. Do you opt for the battery farmed, caged eggs, or something free range and organic? It is the question of welfare and also quality that effects all ingredients from animals; a choice between poorly reared meat, and products that are reared with care rather than only efficiency. ‘The way it is treated, how much room it has, the quality of the air and so on, all has a massive effect on any meat, whether it is wagyu beef, chicken or foie gras. The environment effects the final product.’
The product itself, Hilary tells us is similar in taste, if a little more buttery, and very different in texture, in that it is much meatier. ‘If you overcook normal foie gras in a pan, it melts away just like butter, but the Nivo foie gras has a different texture when you eat it and is a little more meaty.’
Once the chefs at Blue Flame appreciated this technical difference, they were able to develop different ways of using the foie gras. ‘You just need to treat it in a different way. It is quite good if you want to use it as stuffing. Usually, if you want to stuff it inside chicken, for example, the foie gras will melt away, and once you cut in to it, there will be nothing left.’ Blue Flame has also devised a foie gras carpaccio of sorts, where the ingredient is shaved à la minute (at the last minute) on to the dish.
On the menu, Blue Flame has devised a dish of pan-fried foie gras with hazelnut textures, duck egg yolk, butternut squash and balsamic glaze, as well foie gras and confit duck torchon. For the foie gras and confit duck torchon: ‘we’re fleshing out the foie gras and filling it in the middle so it almost looks like a dart board because it’s got the foie gras on the outside and the confit duck in the middle. Because the foie gras is a little bit sweet we are serving it with pickled vegetables, such as shitake mushrooms and baby beetroot, for a sweet and sour taste. We use duck inside the foie gras, and we dehydrate the skin from the leg, creating crispy duck skin, to make a crumble.
‘One of the things I really like about Nivo,’ Hilary adds ‘is that they use all parts of the bird, you can buy the meat, the fat, everything. Nothing is wasted.’
For now, the ethical foie gras is expensive to source, costing double the price of usual options. At Blue Flame, however, the cost will not be passed on to the diner. The cost is caused in part by the lack of suppliers, and Hilary says she has found only two companies that can supply ethical foie gras to Dubai.
‘We really want to let people know this foie gras is available, its fantastic and its not force feed. You don’t have to feel guilty about eating it. It will taste of foie gras, but you can sleep at night. If more people are using it on their menus, it would become more readily available. You have to change the producers mindset. As the customer buying the product, we can dictate that by the demand. When I first moved to Dubai [nearly seven years ago], there was shark’s fin soup on menus, but you don’t see it anymore. People are changing and evolving their tastes and menu selections as they learn more about the products and process involved.’
Finally, having initially told us the ethical foie gras has not yet confirmed to be a permanent fixture on Blue Flame’s menu, we wonder could Blue Flame ever return to its usual foie gras supply? ‘It’s in line with our concept of suitability, and it has a story to it. I think we’d take foie gras off the menu entirely, after we’d had the pleasure of cooking with it. It’s the way forward, to lead by example. It’s hard to turn back once you know it is out there.’ Blue Flame introduces Nivo Finess foie gras to the menu from July and until further notice.
Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, Garhoud (04 230 8580).