Sunday, April 6, 2014

Basque Duckherders

One of the things I enjoy about this school program is the opportunity for field trips, where we get to see different farm-based businesses in the region and meet people who have succeeded in starting or continuing family-run operations. We've visited a winery, a pig farm, a dairy, and a brewery (I missed that visit), and two duck farms, the second of which is located just outside the small town of Domezain-Berraute on the border between the Basque and Béarn regions. It's about an hour east of where we were studying at Hasparren, but only four minutes away from Etcharry, where we'll be for the last two school sessions. The town center is at the top of one of the many rolling hills spilling north from the Pyrénées towards the Adour river and the flatter lands of the Landes; the two essential elements of a Basque community are there: the church, and the fronton, the wall used to play Euskal pilota, the Basque version of pelote, or handball. Or chistera-ball, I suppose, if you use the wicker basket-like scoop on one hand; you can also play it with small rackets. I've seen people practicing, but haven't attended a game.

The first duck farm we visited last fall only did the gavage and transformation into yummy bits, buying their ducks prêt-à-gaver from a Basque farmer. At Ferme Eyhartzea, Jean Michel Berho decided that he wanted control over the whole process, or almost all of it; he buys the ducklings from a local breeder and raises them himself, in outdoor pens with access to a stream that runs through the middle of the farm. They graze on the grass and herbs, and are fed on the corn that he grows in the fields between the duck pastures. Once the corn is high enough that the ducks can't harm it, they get access to those fields as well - the stalks provide shade for the ducks in the summer heat, and I assume they help keep down weeds and bugs and such, as well as fertilizing efficiently. Unlike many of the other foie gras farmers (an image springs to mind of a cowboy herding a flock of pale engorged livers) he's chosen to use a cross-bred duck with local roots, the Kriaxera breed. The female Kriaxera is mated to a male Barbary duck, and the sterile offspring are fattened for slaughter. Most producers use a hybrid of Pekin and Muscovy breeds, or Pekin and Barbary, both of which are faster growing but not as suited to outdoor life. Using the Kriaxera breed has linked Berho with the Slow Food movement, and he's also one of the founding members of the IDOKI group, the Association des Producteurs Fermiers du Pays Basque, devoted to promoting and maintaining small family farms and traditional agricultural methods and products.
Many things were named after me here, too.

The ducks are guarded by attack geese and electric fences, and taken down to the stream every day. Unlike sheep or cows, who know the routine and head willingly between pasture and barn and back again, tiny duck brains don't appear to hold any memory of the day before, and it took many patient minutes for the assistant to move the flock from one end of the field to the other. There was a herd dog, or a dog, anyway, but it wasn't providing any help.

Yet even for these free-ranging, grass-nibbling, sunshine-basking ducks, the end is the same: the cage, and the tube down the throat, and the darkness. Still, they have a better life than many, and their livers and thighs, hearts and gizzards, wings and fat are all used and sold and appreciated by customers all over France. The argument continues over the "cruelty" of force-feeding, but especially when compared to the things that are done to animals (pigs, cows, chickens) in industrial meat and egg production in the USA and elsewhere, I can't say that these small-scale hands-on operations are particularly heinous. I'd rather support a small sustainable farm with the occasional purchase of a jar of duck confit than promote the forced growth of antibiotic-poisoned cattle crammed in stinking mud-filled corrals in vast feedlots by buying fast-food burgers. I'd rather give my money to the Berho and Bergeras families than to Cargill or Tyson. I'd rather we all ate less meat in general, and learned to appreciate the complete process and to be conscious of the time, resources, and lives (both animal and human) that are involved before we do choose to purchase and eat meat, but that's an individual choice, and all I can do is post my thoughts and photos.

Even tiny duck brains deserve respect.

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