Eduardo Sousa has brought back to life a tradition of goose rearing that was almost extinct in his native Extremadura. His magnificent, ethically-produced Spanish foie gras is fetching top prices in the world’s finest food emporia – and ruffling a few French feathers in the process. Paul Richardson reports.
It’s easy to be complacent about the excellence of a local product. Sometimes it takes a comment from an outsider to remind us just how excellent it is.

Eduardo Sousa and his goose foie gras provide a perfect example of this maxim. The story goes as follows: for generations the Sousa family, natives of Fuente de Cantos in southern Extremadura (also birthplace of the painter Zurbarán, but that’s another story) made a modest living from the sale of patés made from ibérico pork liver, according to recipes handed down through the family. Like many owners of large fincas in the region the Sousas also kept geese, potting the fat livers as presents or as a special treat for the family. The product, though delicious beyond imagining, had no presence in the marketplace either locally or nationally - to say nothing of internationally. What’s more, the idea of a foie gras made in Spain was an anomaly that no-one in their right mind would contemplate: the real McCoy was French, and nothing else would do.

The turning-point came in 2006. Briefly, Eduardo took his Spanish foie gras to SIAL, the leading food fair in France – talk about bringing coals to Newcastle! - and against all the odds, won the fair’s Coup de Coeur prize for innovation. It is no exaggeration to say that the prize has transformed Sousa’s life, bringing fame (if not fortune) to this small-town company and revolutionising the suspicious and hermetic foie gras trade. La Patería de Sousa’s foie gras has been discovered by the global gastronomic community, fêted and fought-over by chefs like Dan Barber of the restaurant Blue Hill in Manhattan, who once served it to Barack Obama and describes it as ‘the culinary experience of a lifetime’. Ironically enough, one of the countries that holds Sousa’s product in highest regard is France, heartland of traditional foie gras production.

Natural feeding

In order to understand the uniqueness of this product, it helps to know something about the way most French foie gras is produced – namely by the ‘gavage’ method by which the birds are force-fed, massively boosting the growth of the liver by artificial means. The revolutionary aspect of Sousa’s foie gras is its entirely natural process, which relies on the birds’ natural instinct to gorge on acorns and grass in the weeks leading up to their winter migration. The result is a product that ticks all the boxes for superb flavour and texture, organic status, and immaculate ethical credentials.

In many ways La Patería de Sousa seems an exemplary small business: family-run, based on a sustainable product derived from local and traditional sources. The company is essentially Eduardo Sousa and his wife Jacinta, four permanent employees, and his son and daughter of 9 and 13, who are already keen on the idea of taking over when the time comes.

We meet at Sousa’s HQ in Fuente de Cantos (Badajoz), where a small shop on the ground floor sells the tinned patés which are the company’s daily bread. Based on locally-sourced ibérico pork liver and fat, these are fine examples of the genre and, astonishingly, contain not a single preservative, colouring or any other artificial additive. (The range includes Pedro Ximénez and raisins, orange, three pepper, herbs, and ‘D.O.de bellota’. My only criticism would be that the timid use of these flavours makes the patés less distinctive than they might be.)

Historical background

Leaving Fuente de Cantos we visit the farm, which lies some 20km to the south outside the hamlet of Pallares, among rolling hills of dehesa (holm-oak wood). As we drive Eduardo gives me the historical background on goose production in this part of Extremadura, rare in Spain but common at one time in this region thanks to fincas owned by wealthy members of the clergy, who were notoriously fond of the pleasures of the table. Charles the Fifth’s favourite dish, Eduardo tells me, was goose-liver pie. The Duchess of Abrantes’ recipe book, pillaged by the French from Alcántara during the War of Independence (1808/1814), contained recipes for goose liver pie and mi cuit. Yet curiously, goose in any form has almost zero presence in contemporary Spanish culinary practice. ‘In the old days there were producers of goose meat and eggs, but the liver itself wasn’t valued, it was melted down for oil.’

It is midday and the geese are either resting or pottering quietly in the shade of the oaks. As we cautiously approach one small group the birds become restive, honking in alarm. Just over the stone wall of the Sousa estate, the neighbour’s ibérico pigs rootle contentedly under the trees. Sousa’s geese and these pigs have a lot in common: both are raised in a semi-wild state, both spend the winter months ingesting large quantities of acorns (in the case of Sousa’s geese, up to a kilo per day, plus another kilo of windfall figs and olives, insects, grass, and whatever else they can find) and both are highly valued for the superlative quality of their respective fats.

Free-range geese

It seems such a perfect set-up, such a splendid use of an extensive terrain, and such a highly sought-after finished product, that it is surprising to me that no-one has followed the Sousas into goose production. Evidently it is not an easy proposition. The care of these peculiar livestock requires a degree of sensitivity. Free-range geese need a great deal of space, and as wild creatures, must be disturbed as little as possible. Slaughtering is an especially delicate operation since the birds are extremely prone to stress, which spoils the liver: CO2 is used to put them to sleep. Eduardo loses around 20% of his birds annually to attacks by foxes and other predators (including poachers). All in all, insists Eduardo, foie gras is hardly a money-spinner, despite the high retail price of the finished product (as much as US$150 for a 250g jar). Even so, a few of his neighbours in Pallares have expressed serious interest in taking up the challenge. ‘Our objective is to rescue this tradition, so that the whole of the county goes back to goose production, just like in the Middle Ages’, he declares.

For the moment, he certainly has his hands full. Interest in the product is greater than ever – indeed, the quality of this foie gras, plus the media chatter around the world following the Paris award and Dan Barber’s personal seal of approval, has created a demand which Sousa is unable to satisfy. On the day I visited, a major Swiss distributor had just been to visit, begging for 2500 kilos. Sousa’s total production of foie gras barely reaches 500 kilos from 1000 geese, but, remarkably, he refuses to increase the flock, believing that this would only compromise the welfare of the geese and their environment.

Ethical production

He remains deeply committed to the idea of ethical standards in food production – a long-standing concern of consumers in Nordic countries, but as yet little-discussed in Spain. For years gourmets have fretted about the cruelty of the ‘gavage’ process. Now their qualms are resolved, and they can feast with a clear conscience on Sousa’s ethically-produced foie gras. ADDA, the Spanish campaigner against cruelty to animals, whole-heartedly approves of his initiative. La Patería de Sousa is also a founder member of the newly-formed National Association of Ethical Food Producers (ANPAE), whose quality seal, ALIMENTICO, guarantees that the product in question contains no dubious additives and that its manufacturer respects the environment and treats animals humanely.

It goes without saying that in the world of traditional foie gras this unusual extremeño version is not well regarded. Both the French industry body, the Comité Professionnel Français de Producteurs de Foie Gras, and their Spanish equivalent, the Asociación Interprofesional de las Palmípedas Grasas, have criticised Sousa and his product in the harshest possible terms, accusing him of everything from lacking an export licence to passing off a product that does not meet the true definition of foie gras (which is, that the livers must derive from animals force-fed artificially).

For his part, Eduardo shrugs off the controversy. ‘It is normal that they are angry about this, because they’re afraid’, he says simply.

Totemic in France, ignored in Spain

He then tells me two stories. One is a paradox: in Paris, in the temple to the most totemic of all French gourmet foods, le véritable foie gras espagnol is the star product, even at twice the price of the local sort. A second anecdote illustrates the vagaries of fashion. In the days before the Coup de Coeur award, Eduardo sent a few pots of his foie gras to the gourmet department of a well-known Spanish department store. The next time he was there in person, months later, he asked after the pots, and was told they were still in the storeroom. A foie gras from Extremadura? It was inferior, no good, it wouldn’t sell. No one was interested; what the discerning customer wanted was proper French foie gras.

How completely the situation has changed: the foie from Extremadura is now the one that truly discerning customers want and fine food retailers all over the world are desperate to get their hands on. But revenge is a dish best served cold – preferably on hot toast, with a glass of chilled muscatel. And as hard as you may look, you still won’t find Sousa’s foie gras in the gourmet department of that well-known Spanish department store…

CV of author
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner which of course we have a copy of at Finca al-manzil together with many more interesting books about glorious food.

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