Sonoma Is Front Line in War Over Foie Gras

Times Staff Writer

Michael Bilger, chef at the chic Restaurant Caneros, has it on his Christmas menu: "Seared foie gras with persimmon bread pudding and pomegranate gastrique."

Carlo-Alessandro Cavallo, owner and chef at the celebrated Sonoma Meritage restaurant, likes to serve his foie gras northern Italian-style, wrapped in ravioli and drenched in a white truffle, butter and sage sauce.

Needless to say, both chefs were a bit steamed last week when animal rights advocates presented the Sonoma City Council with a petition to ban the sale of foie gras in this California capital of wine and haute cuisine.

Drafted by In Defense of Animals, an organization based in Marin County, the petition contends that the centuries-old process of force-feeding ducks and geese to produce the fattened-liver delicacy constitutes cruelty to animals.

After hearing from both sides, the City Council took no action on the proposal. "We are neither going to debate or vote on the foie gras issue," said a testy Mayor Dick Ashford, who was surrounded by television cameras in the cramped council meeting space. City attorneys have even questioned the town's authority to ban a food product legally produced in the state.

But, like it or not, this quaint wine-and-cheese tourist town has become the front line in the ongoing foie gras war.

Over the last several months, In Defense of Animals and other groups have focused their attention on Sonoma Foie Gras -- one of only two major producers in the United States -- and several upscale Northern California restaurants.

In August, vandals staged an early morning attack on Sonoma Saveurs, a new food specialty shop under construction on the historic Sonoma town square. The building was flooded and the walls defaced with anti-foie gras graffiti. The shop, scheduled to open later this year, bills itself as a "fine food boutique featuring artisan foie gras."

In Defense of Animals founder Dr. Elliot M. Katz, a Mill Valley veterinarian, has condemned the attack but said he sympathizes with the motives. "Balanced against the suffering that the animals go through, the vandalism is a minor nuisance," said Katz, a vegetarian who avoids all meat and leather products.

The vandalism, classified by police as "terrorism," outraged many people here who have helped build the town's image as an upscale culinary tourist destination.

Over the years, town historian Robert D. Parmelee said, the Sonoma name has been adopted by businesses ranging from carmakers to sausage factories to push their products. Williams-Sonoma, the high-end kitchen products store, was founded here and helped promote the image internationally.

"The name goes back to Indian days," Parmelee said. "It's gradually taken on a magical connotation."

Katz said the image also makes Sonoma an ideal venue to present the anti-foie gras message. "Sonoma is a tourist focal point for a lot of people in the Bay Area and from around the country," Katz said. "It also caters to the high end and has a lot of restaurants that serve foie gras. It seemed like an ideal place to make our point."

The weekly City Council meeting was packed with supporters of the three Sonoma Saveurs partners: Laurent Manrique, French-born chef of the Aqua restaurant in San Francisco; fellow Frenchman Didier Jaubert; and duck farmer Guillermo Gonzales.

Gonzales, a Salvadoran immigrant who studied foie gras production at UC Davis, also owns Sonoma Foie Gras, a farm with 20,000 ducks in the Central Valley town of Farmington, near Stockton. The duck farm originally was in Sonoma County and still carries the name as a mark of prestige. The California farm and New York-based Hudson Valley Foie Gras are the only two large producers in the United States.

At the meeting, Gonzales described himself as a victim of "human rights abuse" at the hands of the animal rights activists.

Before moving to the United States in 1986, Gonzales said, he made sure that foie gras production was legal under federal and state law.

"Now, 17 years later, our family business is a success story achieved through hard and honest work," Gonzales told the sympathetic audience. "Yet, we are stormed by this barrage of abuse with total disregard to our human rights. We are unwilling participants in a national agenda for a new vegan society."

Susan Corso, an animal rights advocate and Sonoma resident, received a noticeably chillier reception as she presented the petition that she said contained 500 signatures in support of a foie gras ban. Corso also gave the council a videotape and photographs that she said documented the cruelty inherent in force-feeding ducks in the final several weeks before they are slaughtered.

Corso said several European countries have recently banned the making of foie gras. "Sonoma has become synonymous with animal cruelty," Corso said, eliciting groans from the audience of about 150 people.

Sitting close to the front of the council chamber, wearing his white chef's tunic, was Meritage restaurant owner and chef Cavallo.

Cavallo, 34, a former chief chef for fashion designer Giorgio Armani's restaurant in Beverly Hills, blames the anti-foie gras movement and other food activist causes on the use of anthropomorphism in Walt Disney cartoons.

"Disney made rabbits into Thumper and deer into Bambi," Cavallo said. "That's why you don't see rabbit or deer in the supermarket." Married to an avian veterinary student at UC Davis, Cavallo said he and his wife keep pet chickens and often nurse injured ducks. "We rehab ducks in our house," he said. "I love ducks. But I also love foie gras."

Also attending the meeting, standing quietly apart from the crowd as it left the council room, were several French businessmen with interests in foie gras. France produces about 80% of the world's output, most of which is consumed in France.

Frenchman Pierre Freund, who owns a Santa Rosa-based foie gras distribution company, said he sees a disturbing trend in the California movement.

"People come in here not knowing anything about foie gras," Freund said.

"The next thing you know, it's like smoking. People who want to eat foie gras will have to do it in the parking lot outside the restaurant."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World