Gastronomy and Credit Crunch Not Great Partners at the Table- Like Foie Gras!

by Tanya Thomas on Nov 25 2008 9:29 AM

The time-honored livelihood of many producers in the in the southwest of France is the making of the traditional regional delicacy- foie gras, or duck's liver. But the global credit crunch is taking its toll on the gourmet food section too. But the customary producers of the French dish are shrugging off its effects - but only until Christmas.

"Our books are already filling with Christmas orders, but I have doubts about next year," said Annie Nadal, a local foie gras producer.

Nadal has 560 ducks she feeds on home grown corn, but costs of production are cutting into her profits. "Prices of feed pellets have already doubled, and so has the price of fertilizer for the corn we grow," she said.

Her solution for the moment is not to raise prices, but rather go unpaid for the time she and her husband spend at work.

"The people who buy foie gras are not the kind of people that are really hurt by an economic crisis," opined another producer with optimism.

But his son Jean Francois Fayol was more cautious.

"The price for the gas we use to cook the preserves is up and grain prices are nearly double," he said. So far however Fayol, who has 1,800 ducks, also said his order books were looking good for the upcoming holiday festivities.

In France, both Christmas and New Year are synonymous with foie gras, with up to 70 percent of a producer's annual sales clinched in the lead-up to the gargantuan end-year feasting.

This year, however, despite producer confidence, consumers say they will be eating less of the delicacy.

"I normally serve foie gras for Christmas but this year there will just be two slices and that's it," said Bernadette Combeau, a mid-morning client at the Perigueux foie market. "If I have the money, people can have as much as they want, but with the way things are financially at the moment it is just not possible."

Foie gras and duck products on offer at the market range from fresh livers to preserves, and whole duck carcasses to blood puddings.

Already a controversial product, removed from menus in several English restaurants due to recent animal rights protests, and due to be banned in California by 2012, foie gras literally means "fat liver".

Considered a delicacy in France, which produced 78 percent of the world's foie gras last year, it is the result of force feeding ducks or geese until their livers expand to three or four times the normal size, a term medically known as "hepatic lipidosis".

It is this that turns their livers into such prized objects for gourmets, and supporters of the process argue it is a natural phenomenon observed in migratory birds stocking up on fat for their flight home.

Once a liver has reached the required size, it is salted, then boiled, and either eaten fresh or preserved in fat. Packaged in their neat glass jars, with old-fashioned wire clips, or large tins, a 300-gram liver sells for about 30 euros in Perigueux, but much more in other parts of the world.

In France the domestic market eats up 77 percent of production, with four out of five households eating foie gras at least once a year.

Along with champagne and caviar, foie gras is a handcrafted gastronomic delight produced in limited quantities. The very best is highly sought after and supply normally outstrips demand. As with other luxury goods however, more affordable versions are also produced in larger quantities for sale in supermarkets.

This year, in order to avoid over-production at any level, and given the current economic circumstances, the Union of Foie Gras producers ie Comite interprofessionnel des palmipèdes à foie gras, CIFOG has advised producers to reduce output.

"We are suggesting they slow down in 2009," said Marie-Pierre Pe, CIFOG general secretary. "We need to be prudent to avoid imbalance between supply and demand," she said, predicting an overall 10 percent drop in production between 2007 and 2009.

Already this year, Pe said, exports have fallen by about 15 percent in the first seven months. The drop is partly due to the strength of the euro against the dollar, she said, as well as the current economic difficulties in Spain, the main importer of French foie gras.

She also said producers must take into account renewed competition from Hungary, a foie gras producing country closed to the international market in 2007 due to the avian flu crisis.

Back at the market, Nadal is noting that the cheaper cuts of duck, left over after the livers are removed, are selling particularly well today.

"My carcasses are all gone, as well as the other cuts, which are cheaper than a beefsteak," she said.

Asked if she could survive on sales of the cheaper cuts, Nadal said certainly not. "The foie gras is the motor, it is the part that makes up our profit," she said.