Holly A. Heyser
Sometimes nature presents you with something so special you have no choice but to bow down to the ingredient and present it as purely as you can. I know, Jaded Ones: You've heard this mantra aped by hundreds of chefs hundreds of times—"honor the protein," and such. It's a cliché. But in this case it's warranted.
I present to you wild foie gras. Yes, it exists. Under certain circumstances, wild ducks and geese will indeed gorge themselves far beyond their normal nutritional needs, to the point where they develop a fat layer comparable to that seen on a domestic duck, loads of fat around their gizzards and guts—and, most importantly, livers that develop into the lovely wobbly bit you see at left in the picture. Doctors call the condition steatosis, in which liver cells accumulate lipids. I call it yummy.
Not all ducks seem to do this. You will rarely see a diver duck this fat, and you will never see a snow goose this sclerotic. Mostly you see it in seed-loving ducks: mallards, gadwall, wigeon, Green-Winged Teal, and most of all in the Northern Pintail, Anas acuta.
This liver came from a pintail, a hen I shot on Opening Sunday at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Maxwell. Even before I finished plucking this bird I knew I had something special: It was as fat as a domestic, and since I'd shot it in the head, there was no meat damage. Once I opened it up, I saw fat around the guts and a glob coating the gizzard. A good sign.
Holly A. Heyser
When I saw the liver, I actually gasped—it was exactly the color of foie gras. Understand that you just don't see livers this fatty very often; a wild foie turns up maybe once or twice a season, tops. How fatty are we talking? Look at the other liver in the picture: It came from another pintail I shot that day.
Getting a wild foie is reason to rejoice. Especially for me. You see, I normally hate the texture of liver. Yes, I eat lots of livers throughout the year, but I mostly grind them into sausage, like my Italian mazzafegati, or mash them into a ravioli filling. I am particularly fond of a savory liver crème caramel, too. But straight-up liver? Not for me.
Yet I do love foie gras, even though I know that the practice of force-feeding the ducks and geese, called gavage, is questionable. That tube does hurt the birds a little, studies show (PDF), but not so much as the animal rights people would have you believe. There is a Spanish producer, Pateria de Sousa, that makes an exquisite foie without gavage by laying out lots and lots of figs, acorns, lupini beans, and olives for their geese to eat in fall. The Spanish foie is not as large as French force-fed foie, but it did win a blind taste test in France in 2006. De Sousa's foie has become the darling of the food world.
The reason the Spanish method works is the same reason we hunters occasionally see our wild foie gras: Waterfowl instinctively gorge in late summer and autumn, first to prep for the migration south—often a flight of more than 2,000 miles—and then to recover from that long journey. The domestic Spanish geese (which are a cousin of our wild specklebelly geese here) are slaughtered right after they've gorged for their "migration."
Our wild foie is largely a product of two things: Waterfowl recovering from their migrations—California is a wintering ground for ducks and geese—and the rice industry. Ducks eat what's around them. One study of pintail feeding behavior done in Kern County, about 200 miles south of the rice fields, shows that during the hunting season pintails there eat mostly swamp timothy and barnyard grass, supplemented by midge larvae. Pintails that far south do not put on the fat our ducks do.
Another study—conducted where we hunt, in rice country north of Sacramento—found that pintails were getting 97 percent of their food from plants, as opposed to 72 percent in Kern, and that close to 99 percent of the northern pintails' plant diet was rice.
Rice is extremely high in energy; it's the pintail equivalent of eating junk food. Rice is so full of nutrients that the birds, like many omnivores (humans included) engage their "thrifty gene." This gene tells the body to store as much energy as possible because the animal is programmed to live in a feast-or-famine world. Incidentally, teal, wigeon, and gadwall do the same thing in the rice fields—as do specklebelly geese, the cousins of those Spanish foie geese. They'll literally become flying butterballs.
The best study on the eating habits of pintails shows that the birds shift to invertebrates (bugs and shrimpy things) late in the hunting season, so they can boost their protein intake while they get ready to breed; this can make the birds taste slightly fishy. The study also shows that hens stay fatter longer than drakes, a fact I've seen consistently in the marshes.
Bottom line for hunters: If you want to eat fat ducks and get a chance to eat some wild, natural foie gras, shoot as many pintails as you can from October through early December, and focus on hens in the last two weeks of January.
I can hear you thinking: All this is very nice, Hank, but how did that liver taste? I felt that I needed to cook it simply. I got a frying pan screaming hot and added some fat I'd rendered from elsewhere on this same duck. I seared the liver hard for 30 seconds on a side, then sprinkled some Italian fleur de sel on it. Alongside went some balsamic vinegar reduced to a syrup.
It was the first liver I'd ever met that I liked on its own. Crispy, soft, meaty, fatty. Maybe it was the fact that this morsel—just three bites at best—was so special it clouded my thinking. Maybe it was the salty sweetness of the Italian salt, the sweet sourness of the balsamic. But I don't think so.
If there was ever a reason for a foodie to take up hunting, this is it. Wild foie exists. It's out there in the marshes. You just have to find it.
Note: To all those who want to fight the eternal foie gras battle on this site, take it somewhere else. I am writing about a natural phenomenon in wild ducks, not about the 4,500-year-old practice of fattening the livers of domestic geese. Got it? Good.