Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ferme Hondet: Les canards de Lasseubetat

A few months ago one of the instructors took us on a field trip to Ferme Hondet, where we learned about the business of fattening ducks for foie gras and other products so popular here in France, especially at the end of the year for the Christmas and New Year's feasts. We did two other farm visits, and our assignment is to write up a paper describing the history and current situation at the farm, how their business is run, where the basic products, ingredients, and supplies come from, and how they fit into the French agricultural scheme. I won't bore you with the five pages I just finished writing, but I thought you might like to see some of the pictures.

The ducks are born to the north of here in two large industrial breeding factories, and then the ducklings are shipped down to the south and west to the Pays Basque, where another farmer raises them for 7 weeks, first inside and then outside. For the final week they're only fed corn once a day, and are given piles of it so they can stuff themselves for an hour before the feed is taken away; this is the "pre-gavage" stage. It approximates the more natural process that wild ducks do in the fall, like other birds and mammals, when they eat as much as possible to get them through the lean months ahead.

However, it's then taken to the extreme in the next step, which begins when the ducks arrive at the farm. Unlike another facility we visited, this family doesn't force the ducks to stay in tiny individual cages while they're fattened, and in fact there are fewer ducks per enclosure here than on average (17 ducks in three square metres, rather than 26). The building where the pens are is open on one end, well ventilated, and with a good amount of space under the pens so that the ducks (and the farmers) don't have to smell the fumes from the droppings all day long. What's more, cocoa husks and waste from the Lindt chocolate factory in Oloron-Sainte-Marie are regularly spread over the floor, which reduces the smell, changes the pH, and makes it all better fertilizer for the fields where the corn is grown. The ducks are fed whole corn kernels that have been cooked until they're about three times larger than dried, and then mixed with a bit of sunflower oil to make them go down nice and smoothly. The oil also helps keep the corn running well through the tube from the boiler to the pipe that gets stuck down each duck's throat once a day. It takes about an hour and a half to feed the 300-350 ducks in each batch, and they process a batch of ducks every three weeks.

And by "processing" I of course mean KILLING THEM BWAH HAH HAH. Electrocuting them, in fact, by sticking their heads down into the thing that looks like a defibrillator on the rear wall, slitting their throats in the nearby red funnels, and then dipping them into almost-boiling water to loosen the feathers. They're plucked using a two-step process; the steel rollers in the front of the machine remove the large feathers, and then the yellow french-fry-shaped "fingers" pull off the smaller feathers. Or maybe it's the other way around. Each duck is hung on one of the chains that slide assembly-line style back around the other side of the room, the pinfeathers are burned off with a blowtorch, and the carcasses go into the next room where they're gutted.

They sell the ducks whole for roasting, or cut into breasts for pan-searing or thighs for making confit at home, and you can also buy the raw livers if you want to make your own terrine de foie gras, which some people do. Mostly, though, all of the foie gras and confit is made on site and sold in jars and cans or in vacuum-packed portions. Cou de canard is a specialty: the skin of the neck is peeled backwards off in one piece to make a sort of sausage casing, which is then stuffed with minced spiced duck meat and foie gras.

It's entirely possible that the people who were living here when the stone farmhouse and grange were built in 1764 also raised ducks and celebrated the end of the year with rich flavors and fatty indulgence, but Ferme Hondet has only been in commercial production of fattened ducks since the early 1980s. At first, they raised the ducks themselves and sent them out for slaughter and processing, but then they decided it made more economic sense to farm out (ha!) the first part and keep the value-added transformation aspect in house. Now the only ducks raised on the farm are the "show animals" that they keep around for visitors and use for their own consumption.

happy ducks dancing
far from the cages below
they'll be roasted too

Maïté and Jean-Marc Hondet
La Ferme Hondet

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