Once upon a time, my deathbed scene consisted of Bryn Terfels CD Simple Gifts, a tranche of foie gras de canard, and a glass of Château Suduiraut. In case my hour of departure left me lost for words, I wrote a kind of culinary living will, emphasising duck, not goose, and fresh, not tinned differences that Mark Twain once described, apropos of the right word, as the difference between lightning and lightning bugs. I have loved foie gras dearly and deeply since my first bite. Although I am tender-hearted when it comes to all domestic fowl, I didnt flinch when I was told that foie gras was faintly sweet and unctuous because the ducks were force-fed in the twilight of their lives. The ducks Ive known have always been incredibly greedy.
I had visions of a feast of acorns, windfalls and piles of grain, an orgy of eating that went on until the ducks gently collapsed, a vision fulfilled by Madame LeGrand, my neighbour in Burgundy, who fed her ducks by hand and massaged their throats. I wasnt around when she calmly slit their throats, but I happily bought two fat livers from her each autumn. I truly didnt know about ducks in cages and the mechanical gavage using a metal tube until a few years ago. It made me shudder to think about it, but I also shudder when my lambs go off to the abattoir.
I continued to eat foie gras on special occasions, restrained only by the expense and a hazy notion of the cholesterol content. When Governor Schwarzenegger banned the production and sale of foie gras in California from 2012, I was appalled at the sanctimonious political correctness. Demonstrators in New York, harassing customers who entered restaurants that had foie gras on the menu left me outraged. Why werent they outside Kentucky Fried Chicken or Burger King, places where the animals on the menu have had far worse lives? As I toasted my brioche, I thanked my lucky stars that I lived in civilised Old Europe.
Then something strange happened. About a year or so ago, I went off the idea of foie gras. Perhaps ones own liver becomes more sensitive with age, along with ones conscience. I didnt pontificate if I was served it at a dinner, I simply stopped making it, ceased ordering it. I didnt take it off the restaurant menu because it wasnt on the menu. All our meat is born and raised within a 30-mile radius. I mostly kept quiet about my farewell to foie gras, until last week, when I got a telephone call from a fellow restauranteur telling me about Midsummer House, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Cambridge. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) had spray-painted the windows, glued the locks and thrown a brick into a window, all because the chef-owner Daniel Clifford serves foie gras. At first, Mr Clifford was determined to face down the ALF terrorists, but the police advised him to forget any notions of a culinary High Noon. You dont need a long memory to recall what the ALF did to scientists and their families who worked at the nearby Huntington Life Sciences.
But Midsummer House leaves me with a dilemma. I hate the idea of cruelty to ducks, but I also hate the idea of the ALFs cruelty to people who dont share their beliefs. When Mr Clifford changed his menu, for the safety of his staff and customers, it signalled a new and ominous tyranny in the restaurant world. Even for the diner who doesnt dream of foie gras and trumpets, this is a fork in the road we may all come to regret.