Although I knew Mary Had a Little Lamb and Baa Baa Black Sheep by heart before I was three, I did not see a lamb until I was seven years old. The only lamb you come across in America is in the freezer section at the grocery store with ‘New Zealand’ stamped in blood-red letters.
Only after my exotic Uncle Prichard decided to have sheep on his cotton plantation in Inverness, Mississippi, did I see the creatures that existed only in nursery rhymes and the Bible. I was transfixed by the woolly lambs with springs in their feet and joy in their hearts, and I longed for one of my own, to have and to hold. As soon as the grown-ups began their evening ceremony of Bourbon and water, I sneaked off to the field where the sheep grazed on soy bean left-overs.
But the lambs, unlike our friendly Jersey calves, did not want my company. The closer I got, the more anxious they looked, until, without warning, they took off in a cinematic stampede, hundreds of hooves rumbling across the flat, dry earth. When the blanket of dust cleared there was a small heap of white wool at my feet. I knelt down and felt its still-warm, trampled body. Sweet. Soft. Dead.
I still remember the ache of my moral dilemma: confess my crime to Uncle Prich (first rule of country life: never chase livestock) or find a shady grave out of the flight path of buzzards? My nervous confession was rewarded with swift, cool forgiveness. As penance I silently vowed to never, ever eat lamb, a vow which lasted until, 10 years on, I was served thin slices of pink lamb, embedded with garlic and rosemary. Still, I’ve tried to stick to a culinary moral code. I want everything I shoot, trap, hook, pluck, behead and gut to have had as nice a life as possible.
I try only to buy meat in our farmers’ market because I know the tender-hearted farmers who produce it. But there is one exception. On high days and holy days I order fresh duck livers from Hamish who goes to Rungis twice a week, and I make foie gras. I usually do an instant version cured in salt that I learned in Burgundy. Much less work than a classic terrine, it’s just as unctuous, smooth, elegant and delicious. As I pull away the clear membrane that covers the outside of the duck liver, I do not think about my sweet Call ducks named Ebb and Flo. I just think about the pleasure of serving the slices of foie gras on a chilled plate, a few leaves of lambs lettuce glistened with walnut oil, a spoonful of fig-and-prune chutney and freshly grilled bread. And a glass of Sauternes.
But if your mouth is watering, swallow now. Last year, Governor Arnold Schwar-zenegger banned the production of foie gras in California. If this sounds like Hitler being a vegetarian no one has dared say so. In fact, the anti-foie gras lobby now pickets restaurants and chefs are caving in faster than you can say foie gras de canard frais. The latest defector is Charlie Trotter, a celebrity chef from Chicago who’s publicly renounced foie gras on ‘ethical grounds’.
I admit that force-feeding ducks to fatten their livers is a creepy process. So is raising animals in confined, darkened spaces, taking newborn calves from their mamas, and herding cattle with electric prods. I don’t serve foie gras in my own restaurant because we aim to serve only what is born, grown or produced within a five-mile radius, except the fish which comes to this landlocked farm from Cornwall or Scotland.
But if animal-rights extremists, bloated from their fox-hunting ban, start targeting restaurants, only the grilled toast will be safe.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 14, 2005.