On a Wild Goose Chase
None of us is certain when we had that first dinner, even after trying to trace the event through the years, recalling which couple hosted which meal and how we cooked the dish that brought us to the table. But we did know that for about twenty-five years the six of us had celebrated the winter season by sharing a dinner centered on foie gras. We have cooked it in every way imaginable: baked in terrines; cured only with salt and pepper; marinated in Sauternes, then poached; simmered in stock en torchon with fresh figs; seared with cabbage; sautéed and served with reduced balsamic vinegar over Dresden stollen; marinated, then baked in brioche. (Two preparations were daringly unsuccessful: baked in a hollowed-out pineapple, and churned into ice cream.)
With the twenty-fifth foie gras anniversary approaching, one of the members of the group suggested we have our annual dinner in France. We debated the region—the south, where duck liver reigns, or Alsace, where fatted goose liver prevails. Then I heard Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City, speak about his visit to Eduardo de Souza, a man he called the “goose whisperer” who attracts wild geese to join his domesticated flock in the fall and gorge themselves on acorns. They develop fatted livers naturally instead of being force fed, and they never fly out. Eduardo keeps geese not in France but in Extremadura, the westerly part of Spain abutting the Portuguese border. The sparsely-populated land includes vast expanses of fenced oak woodlands where black-footed ibérico pigs roam, eating acorns to fatten them before they become jamón ibérico de bellota, Spain’s glory to pork. None of us had been to Extremadura, so we opted to celebrate there instead of France. It would be an adventure.
To prepare the foie ourselves, following the tradition, we would need a kitchen. Internet searches led to a country house in Extremadura where we could encamp for a week in November. In the meantime we drew on our collective ingenuity to contact Eduardo. We had learned that he processes the livers himself, but we wanted a raw one. Another member of the group, a food writer and journalist, send him an e-mail offering to buy a whole goose. I tried to reach him through my olive oil connections. The proprietor of the country house even drove an hour to visit his shop in an attempt to help our quest. No answer. Nada.
Undaunted, we planned our trip, lining up visits to cheese producers, olive oil mills, and a cooperative that makes the exquisite hams, all in Extremadura. When we got there we would try again to contact Eduardo.
Our route to the country house passed by the small town where Eduardo has his shop. Even though we didn’t know the exact address we decided to drive through town, everyone on the lookout. “ There it is! Turn around,” shouted the most ardent meat lover of the group. We made a u-turn and pulled into an access road that fronted a group of shops. The name, Patería de Sousa, lettered on a small billboard, then repeated on the window, announced the modest storefront. Our meat lover was out of the car before the parking brake was set. By the time the rest of us entered the store he was deep in conversation with the two women behind the refrigerated case, which contained a sparse selection of pork patés in containers. In his best Spanish our friend was telling the story of our annual dinners and our excitement about trying one of Eduardo’s goose livers. Alas, it was too early to process the birds—they needed to fatten for another month. More conversation revealed that the elder woman was Eduardo’s mother and the younger his wife. We tentatively asked about visiting the farm—maybe the women would be sufficiently moved by our story to intercede on our behalf. His wife suggested that we talk to him directly and gave us his cell phone number. His cell phone number! Surely we could work something out.
Back at the country house we finalized our visits to the olive mill and the ham cooperative. Then our most fluent Spanish speaker sent a text message to Eduardo suggesting a visit to his farm during the next five days, the time we had remaining. Again, no response.
This could have been a crushing blow—a year’s planning and a trip to a remote part of Spain all for naught. But instead of profound disappointment we decided to dedicate the adventure, not to the goose, but to the pig and the tasty parts we had sampled: a suckling pig no more than eighteen inches long, a roasted shoulder of ibérico pork, and countless plates of jamon ibérico de bellota. And just in case anyone had a lingering yearning for foie gras, a date was set for the twenty-sixth (or will it be the twenty-seventh?) dinner when we returned home.