Crouching in a verdant pasture in the early summer sun, Eduardo Sousa plucks a few blades of grass and extends them toward a flock of geese. "Hello, my darlings," he coos. "Hello, hello, hello." It is the Spanish farmer's first visit to the Stone Barns Center, a farm and education center dedicated to sustainable agriculture in Pocantico Hills, some 30 miles (48 km) north of New York City, and Sousa is impressed with what he sees. "If I lived here," he says, reaching affectionately toward the geese, "I could make some amazing foie."
Foie is short for foie gras, the engorged goose liver the French pioneered by force-fattening the birds with grain. But Sousa is a revolutionary of sorts: he is producing ethical foie gras. For him, there is no contradiction in fact, there's a logical relationship between treating animals well and producing superior food. In Spain's western region of Extremadura, he raises geese for foie gras without the forced feeding, known as gavage, that many animal-rights supporters equate with torture and that has gotten the silky delicacy outlawed in some cities. Now, at the invitation of Stone Barns, he is trying to do the same thing in Westchester County, N.Y.
In Extremadura, the 1,000 or so geese Sousa raises each year roam freely, eating their fill of acorns and olives, on a farm that replicates the wild as closely as possible. "If you convince them that they're not domesticated, their natural instinct takes over," he explains. "When it turns cold and it's time for them to migrate, they start gorging to prepare for the long flight." The result is a fattened liver that, while smaller than conventional foie, is delicious enough to have won France's prestigious Coup de Coeur award. "That," Sousa likes to say, "really pissed the French off."
But could that foie be reproduced elsewhere? Inspired by what he saw and tasted during his January 2008 visit to Sousa's farm, chef Dan Barber, whose second Blue Hill restaurant is located on the grounds of Stone Barns and who serves as the center's creative director, was determined to find out. He persuaded the center's farmers to dedicate part of their pasture to geese and to feed them the highest quality organic corn. There was only one problem: in his enthusiasm, Barber had somehow missed the importance of letting the birds forage for their own food. Accustomed to a steady supply of grain, Stone Barns' trial geese had no need to gorge themselves once the weather turned chilly. "They were delicious," recalls Barber. "But their livers were the size of Ping-Pong balls." It was time to call in the Goose Whisperer himself.
Sousa's visit did not begin auspiciously. For one, he was nearly arrested at Portuguese customs when he tried to change flights in Lisbon with two fresh goose livers packed in his carry-on (the foie gras, much to Barber's chagrin, was confiscated). And his first stop, a tour of a duckfoie gras farm in upstate New York that uses gavage, left Sousa with literal nightmares. That night, he dreamed of hordes of ducks with very long bills.
But Stone Barns, with its pastured livestock and lush vegetable gardens, inspires the Spaniard. Touring the grounds with Barber and Craig Haney, the center's livestock manager, he repeats his verdict on the farm's foie-producing potential. It's exactly what the chef wants to hear, but Haney isn't so easily convinced. Stone Barns may look like someone's idyllic paean to sustainable agriculture, but it's also a working farm, and that means limited resources. After last year's debacle, Haney is letting the geese forage on grass but worries about the lack of acorns. "It doesn't matter," Sousa reassures him. "They'll eat anything if they think that they're wild. But that's the key: they have to think, from the moment they're born, that they're just passing through, that they're not part of this movie," he says, gesturing at the admittedly cinematic fields.
He is considerably less sanguine, however, about the incubator in which Stone Barns hatches its chicks. In Extremadura, Sousa's geese build nests and hatch their own eggs; incubators, in his opinion, not only result in weaker birds, but also make it impossible to "convince" the geese that they're wild. Presented with a still wet Stone Barns chick, pulled from its heating tray, he shakes his head sadly. "If you wanted to raise a baby Rambo, would you want him living rough out in the country or coddled in an intensive-care unit?"
Although Haney is intrigued by the idea of raising animals in conditions that replicate the wild, he's not sure he can make the economics work. Natural nesting means that the birds lay only one set of eggs per year, and for a diversified farm where each animal has to earn its keep, that's nowhere near enough eggs. Also, he prefers to be scientific in his experimentation, altering only one variable at a time. "Farms change in years," he says. "Not months." For now, Stone Barns' geese will be hatched in incubators.
Does that mean Barber will have to go another year without his own foie on the menu? No one will know for sure until the birds are slaughtered in late fall. But Sousa remains hopeful. "Eventually," he says, "I know they'll get it right."