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The true value of foie gras in French life

From my house there are four roads that wind their way around the countryside through villages and by farms.

At many points they criss-cross each other, and bemused visitors can find themselves back at Las Molieres 20 minutes after leaving for a destination across the river.

I still drive around here using farmyards and trees as points of reference.

When the fog comes down, as it often does this month, night-time driving without those familiars becomes a tortuous crawl or an extended, unwelcome and often frightening tour of La Lomagne.

On any of the roads, though, I know I'm close to home when I pick up the boards of the foie gras producers with their jolly sketches of skipping ducks and geese.

They are dotted all around me and stretch for mile upon mile in this heartland of, arguably, France's most famous export.

Three weeks ago, in anticipation of Christmas, the smallholding's fields became alive with flocks of anything from six to 60 of the birds.

By now, of course, they will be gone; for to fatten the livers to the size of a small football, it is the ideal time-scale for force-feeding the birds at least three times a day.

The smaller the flock, the more likely the "gavage" (force-feeding) will be done by hand. The woman of the house - because for some reason the birds mistakenly prefer and trust women - will have sat on a stool, placed the bird between her knees, inserted a tube or funnel and fed grain down the oesophagus.

In the industrial sheds they will be caged and rammed to the funnel without human contact.

It is a method that apparently first began with the Egyptians but was finessed by the Romans, who watched the poultry gorge themselves for the coming winter.

When slaughtered, they discovered the by-product was a grossly enlarged, effectively diseased liver, an extraordinarily delicious mound of flavoursome fat, which would become a byword for extravagance and luxury worldwide.

Here it is considered neither extravagant nor luxurious. Foie gras is simply another staple of the terroir.

Whole or tinned in various forms, it graces the shelves of even the cheapest shops and comes with a price a quarter of what is paid in the UK.

I would doubt there would be a house free of foie gras around me in the coming days.

Running up to Christmas, the shelves of the supermarkets were cleared to display the foies in all their variants. The priciest ones had the name, the address and phone number of the local producer; the cheapest were simply tinned pâtés, mainly duck.

Each year at this time I still find mesmerising the sight of what I would term, in the kindest of ways, "ordinary" folk discussing the various foies before choosing the lobe.

I listen in to them arguing over pan-frying with fruit, dousing in Armagnac or serving simply with an onion or fig confit.

The men have the callused hands of labourers; the women the outfits of practicality, not style.

Yet their lengthy, serious and knowledgeable discussions would shame the foodies of the finest postcodes.

They do the same with that other necessity at this year's end - the oyster - choosing by grade and provenance; again at a price far, far lower than you would pay.

Two days ago a survey by an animal rights group showed 29% of French people refuse to buy foie gras on ethical grounds because of the suffering of the birds. The practice and the selling is outlawed in many countries and banned in several stores, yet France still exports almost €1.5 billion worth of foie gras while retaining half of the output for the domestic market.

Too often, as regular readers know, I've written about animal cruelty in France. But I have concentrated on those we think of as pets and perhaps turned away from the disturbing conditions of other animals before and during their abattoir end.

It has never been a discussion in this neck of the woods. Vegetarians are still a strange race in rural France, although increasingly acceptable in the big cities.

Here, there are no surprises as to what is done to present the meat, indeed every part of the beast, on one's plate. There is little shirking from the facts of life and death around this region.

We still live close to the original animal, as is seen in every butcher's shop.

We know they don't come miraculously packaged in a cling-filmed tray without any resemblance to the creature killed and carved for our pleasure.

Is it a cop-out to say that I believe my neighbours genuinely give thanks to what - those - they eat, particularly at this time?

That they will fatten their geese and ducks for their own pleasure this coming Christmas Eve and Day and offer them up for all the lean years past?

Perhaps. What I do know is that in three days time they will sit together as a family around a large kitchen table eating food lovingly prepared for a special feast. Presents are secondary. Togetherness is all. Joyeux Noel.

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