Home   About Tasca   Our Menu   Reviews   Directions   Resource Center   Email Us

DUCKS "TAKE OFF" IN SPAIN

Text: Inigo More
Photographs: Pablo Neustadt
Still Life: Menchu Artime

A JOURNEY TO THE WORLD OF THE DUCKS
EN ROUTE TO NAVARRE
THREE WEEKS OF FORCE FEEDING

Spain has never really had a duck breeding and production tradition, despite the fact that it is now one of several countries actively engaged in this activity. Since the last decade, an entire industry has been created around what had only been a limited practice and today the breeding of ducks has been consolidated in our country. Respected Spanish food critic Dionisio Perez, better known by his pseudonym "Post-Thebussem", complained at the beginning of this century about how difficult it was to find foiegras in Spain. "It would not be a bad idea for us to incorporate the frequent use of foie gras into Spanish cooking," said Post-Thebussem pleading for industrial breeding of ducks and geese to be undertaken in Spain. Despite this famous gastronomer's suggestion, the industrialization of duck production in Spain is only very recent and dates back to the last decade. Thanks to the efforts of several firms created at the time, the shelves of the gourmet stores and the menus from the best restaurants were suddenly filled with magret, confit and foie gras. This exquisite and incipient industry which would have delighted Post-Thebussem has strangely enough grown stronger still in the nineties, despite the crisis affecting all of Europe. Spanish production of the delicious foie gras is increasing at an annual rate of 20 per cent and more than half a million ducks are slaughtered annually. This number will not impress the French at all, for they know that seventeen million ducks are raised every year in their country.

However, it is necessary to take into account that fifteen years ago, the Spanish production was so limited that there was not even any data available in order to be able to determine to what extent it existed. We wanted to study the birth of this industry with our very own eyes and so we prepared a small excursion which would take us to Catalonia and Navarre, where most of these birds are raised. We left Madrid thinking that just fifteen years ago, it would have been extremely difficult to make a similar trip. Up until that time, the duck's presence was limited and depended upon the rate of their annual migrations which made them cross our country on their annual journey from the marshlands of Northern Africa to the Central European lakes, and vice versa. And it is precisely these migrations which work the culinary miracle on the foie gras - the fatty liver - the most highly prized part of the duck and the justification for its existence and breeding. just as in the case of the geese, the ducks possess the ability to accumulate lipids in their body, which furnishthem with the necessary autonomy to undertake these long migrations. The liver is precisely its main storehouse for nutritive reserves. The raising and force feeding of these ducks began possibly when someone noticed that their livers were even tastier if the bird had been captured right before its migration, when the liver was filled with fat. This individual - surely an ancient Egyptian as is suggested by the bas-reliefs of several funeral chambers - decided not to go without his beloved delicacy until the next migration and so he tried to fatten up a goose in order to stuff its liver with fat. This feeding method receives the name of force feeding and we are all quite familiar with the results of such an operation. This custom went from ancient Egypt to Imperial Rome, where the geese were fattened with figs according to a method attributed to the Roman gourmet, Apicius.  This liver - iecur - in Latin, received the name of iecur ficatum. Suchmust have been the success of his method that the ancient French and Spaniards only remembered the figs in order to give that name to the iecur, which they henceforth called foie or higado, respectively. At present, corn issued in the force feeding, for it furnishes much better culinary results and is cheaper than figs. This cereal originally came from America and so the Romans were not familiar with it. It was the Spanish discoverers who brought corn to Spain in the 16th century, after the Conquest of Mexico, and from there, it traveled to Italy and France. Therefore, it is not at all unlikely that the Spaniards were the first to fatten ducks and geese with corn.

A JOURNEY TO THE WORLD OF THE DUCKS 
[TOP]

With all this information in our heads, we arrived in the Catalonian province of Gerona, specifically in the region known as La Selva, where the town of Sant Marti S'Apresa is located. A little farther beyond its limits, Mas Par6s, a typical 17th century masia or Cataloniancountry manor, is found, set behind enormous stone walls. We were greeted there by several very menacing dark clouds and also by jordi Serra, the manager of Sehisa. This firm, which began operating in 1981, was the very first to industrialize the breeding and elaboration of ducks in Spain.  Jordi Serra explained to us, while we visited the very modern offices, whose walls of bare stone are more than 300 years old, that they chose "Mas Pares" as the brand name, as a tribute to the masia in which the company is housed. As we went down to the workshop, located on the lower floor of the building, Jordi Serra told us that not all ducks couldbe used to make foie gras. There are more than 40 varieties, but the MasPares products are elaborated exclusively from ducks of the mallard breed, a hybrid born from a father who was a duck of the barbaric breed and a common mother. The mallard duck's liver is considered to be better than that of the rest of the species. It is smaller but, in proportion, has more cellular tissue, which allows it to accumulate a greater percentage of fat during the force feeding process. In addition, its liver disintegrates less when it is prepared hot and has a more pronounced flavor. Years ago, barbaric were the most commonly used for they could be raised in cages, which lowered production costs, although the quality of their products was inferior. These ducks came from the central high plateau of the Andes and were brought to Europe by the Spaniards in the 16th century, following the discovery of America. Any information which we have about duck breeding for force feeding is subsequent to this date and is always related to the barbarie which is, by the way, completely mute.

Jordi Serra told us that they themselves raised the ducks, but sell them when they are fourteen weeks old to the force feeders so that they can take charge of the process, at the end of which the ducks are repurchased. After four weeks of being fattened, the ducks arrive at the Mas Paras workshop, ready to be processed. There, the livers are used to prepare the whole foie gras, the semi-cooked mi-cuits and the blocs, a preparation, which consists of mixing pieces of liver with mashed liver pur6 in different proportions. These products are always manufactured without the addition of truffles or Armagnac, as is traditional in France. At most, they are seasoned with a little pepper, which brings out the true quality of the product. This company is relatively small: its sales in1993 amounted to 320 million pesetas. its production is not massive either, but as jordi Serra says: "What is important, the philosophy behind our company, is Quality, not Quantity." We listened to him, thinking that the second stage of our trip would bring us into contact with a much larger firm and we wondered if this would be a disadvantage for elaborating products with a similar quality.

EN ROUTE TO NAVARRE 
[TOP]

We left Mas Pares at the end of the morning. The dark clouds, which we noted upon our arrival, had produced a big thunderstorm. We bid farewell to the beautiful masia in order to cross the Pyrenees to the other side of the mountain range, to the Navarre town of Vera de Bidasoa, which is where the headquarters of the firm Conservas Martiko, the largest Spanish producer of duck end products, is located. Thanks to this firm, the restaurants Zalacain, Akelarre and Arzak havesomething in common, in addition to their several stars in the Micbelin guide: they all serve their clients duck end products produced by Conservas Martiko. These restaurants use a "specially selected" quality of foie gras which we can enjoy, even if we do not dine in their establishments, for these products can be purchased under the Martiko and Ibarden brands in any gourmet store. This makes us think that "Quality" need not always be at odds with "Quantity". Our visit to one of this company's farms would convince us of the special care with which Conservas Martiko prepares its products, despite the fact that they annually process160,000 ducks. Our appointment with Pedro - Peyo - Martikorena, the major stockholder and General Director of Conservas Martiko, was at a farm a few kilometers from Vera de Bidasoa, right on the border with France and beside the Seniorio de Bertiz, one of the most beautiful forests in Europe.  Peyo was wearing his work clothes and was covered with mud up to his waist, something very unusual for the proprietor of a firm, which, in 1993, billed1,200 million pesetas. He had just repaired a pipeline which delivered fresh water from a spring at the top of a nearby mountain to the farm. One of the key factors in their production is precisely the purity of this water. "It may seem strange," said Peyo, "but if the water the ducks drink does not have a high level of quality and if it is not free of chlorine and other foreign substances, it is impossible to produce quality livers." Peyo's willingness to work hard was fundamental in the success of a firm created in 1985 almost by accident. The Martikorena family only participated in the duck business as an investor at that time, but when their partner in charge of production left, they found they had to take over the business themselves. That was a time which Peyo insists he will never forget, for he thought that "the world had come to an end, especially because I knew practically nothing about production and breeding." However, he resolved all the difficulties with the helpof jean - Kiki Labarte, considered to be the greatest duck expert in southwestern France. Labarte had worked for more than thirty years for the prestigious French firm, Labeyre, specializing in foie gras. A year before his retirement, he began to collaborate with Conservas Martiko, a firm with which he continues to maintain close ties, despite the fact that he is over 70 years old. "Without his technical advice, it would have been very difficult for us to have come this far," declares Peyo. We saw on the farm that this company also uses mallard ducks, which live in semi freedom within areas the size of basketball courts. "When the grass has been entirely consumed in one area," Peyo explains, "we move them to another where the grass has already grown back." These areas have the food trough at one end and the water at the other, which forces the ducks to do a lot of exercise, ,making their meat more flavorful. "Breeding in closed stables would be much easier for us," says Peyo, "for the mortality factor would be a lot lower, but if you want to achieve a quality product, you have no choice but to reject this method."

Oddly enough, Conservas Martiko only raises male ducks. "We do not wish to discriminate against the females," says Peyo, "but it is because the quality of the liver in the malesis far superior, as it has less gristle and is softer than that of the females."

THREE WEEKS OF FORCE FEEDING 
[TOP]

The force feeding of the ducks takes place on the same farm when the birds are fourteen weeks old. During the three or four weeks that the process lasts, they will receive two meals a day, consisting of half a kilo of semi-cooked corn, a little bit of bicarbonate to facilitate digestion and a small amount of duck fat so that the food slides down the esophagus easily. Force feeding is extremely complex and is also the most delicate part of the entire process for an excess of food could cause cirrhosis of the liver, making it unsuitable for producing foie gras. Only the most expert professionals are capable of determining the exact point, directly before degeneration, in which the liver is in a perfect state and the duck is ready to be killed. At the bottom of this farm is the workshop, where this task is carried out. After slaughtering the animal and draining the blood, the liver is removed and worked while it is still hot, between 28 and 33 degrees C (82and 91 F). According to Peyo, "this affects the quality of the product, especially the liver which is sold fresh, because it will disintegrate much less when the cook puts it on the grill. " This is the right moment for making the selection, when the extra quality pieces can be detected, for use in making the whole foie gras and the mi-cuits. The line of products is completed with the parfaits, mousses and pates, different preparations in which the percentage of liver differs from 98 to 50 per cent. In order to take full advantage of the duck, the process does not stop here for every part of this bird, just like the pig, can be used for something. The breasts or magrets are sold fresh, or are used for making duck hams, which are cured according to the typical Spanish tradition. This implies the loss of moistness in a natural manner instead of by centrifugation as is customary in certain European countries. The thighs go into the making of the confits; the feathers are also used and are sold to pillow manufacturers. Even the tongues are preserved and the beaks are set aside for making buttons. In fact, Peyo Martikorena states that the difference in price between the foie gras from duck and that of goose "lies in the different use made of both birds and not in the quality of their livers. From the goose, only the liver and feathers are utilized, for its meat is less tasty and doesn't allow for such a wide variety of products. in addition, the geese need to be force fed three times a day instead of only two for the ducks. The result is that the full cost of the breeding of the geese must be reflected in the price of its liver, and so, it is more expensive." Conservas Martiko also produces smoked salmon and salmon pat6s. In addition, its company has holdings in other businesses but, as Kipling would have said, that is another story. We departed Navarre at night. We left behind an inspection trip into the world of the duck, whose tradition was almost non-existent in Spain a few years ago. We can now say that an equally exquisite industry has finally been set up in our country.

Inigo More is a freelance journalist who collaborates with a variety of publications

Return to Resource Page.


Home   About Tasca   Our Menu   Reviews   Directions   Resource Center   Email Us

© 2000, Tasca Restaurant. All rights reserved.