For us, the ‘Great Search For The Source of Hungarian Goose Liver’ started with my wife Erzsebet’s recollection of her grandmother in her farmyard’s poultry pen, bent over a goose, inserting a funnel into its throat, and stuffing corn down into the funnel. The method, which also involves stroking the goose’s neck, was once called ‘gavage,’ from the French word for gullet or throat. It creates a goose liver grown to as much as ten times its normal size.
That recollection sent us to central Europe’s most famous restaurant, Gundel, on the edge of a Budapest city park, and to Bábolna, a small city halfway to Vienna, where a goose liver production company shares its headquarters with an institute devoted, since the eighteenth century, to the breeding and raising of purebred Arabian horses.
The search was a step back in time. Stuffing geese is an ancient tradition in Hungary. When the country was a Roman province, Pannonia, its residents followed the Roman tradition of stuffing geese with figs. In the late 9th century AD, the Magyar tribes—ancestors of today’s Hungarians—came into the Carpathian basin, drove out its inhabitants and continued to stuff geese, following the tradition already established by the people who preceded them.
Although gourmets have prized Hungarian goose liver through the ages, its export was limited by the need to keep the product fresh. The first significant delivery of Hungarian goose liver to western Europe was in 1883 when retailer Antal Hirschfeld arranged for a special refrigerated car to be hooked onto the Orient Express, making transport of the product safe and fast.
Today, force-feeding of geese has provoked controversy. Ironically, the hullabaloo has helped sell Hungarian goose liver. Calling it ‘violence on our plate’, the animal rights movement in France has raised enough ruckus to induce the French foie gras industry to cover its tracks by buying more of its raw goose liver from Hungary. Since Hungary has no animal rights movement to speak of, its ability to produce and sell 80 percent of the world’s raw goose liver—of which 1,400 tons goes to France—has not been affected.
Hungary, France, and Israel produce nearly all the world’s foie gras—’fat liver’. Hungary makes all its product from goose liver, but France pulls the wool—or feathers—over the eyes of wannabe gourmets by making much of its pâté from duck liver.
In our search, we learned that most of Hungary’s raw goose liver originates at a government-owned company called Bábolna, whose headquarters is in the eponymous city of Bábolna, midway between Budapest and Vienna, off the main road. We traveled by train to Komárom and then by bus to Bábolna, a cost of the equivalent of $15.20 total for the two of us.
The bus ride took us through villages with clock-steepled churches and rust-colored tile roofs. Every little patch of ground had a garden with flowers, fruits, and vegetables—pink and red roses, sunflowers, bright orange tiger lilies, poppies, tomatoes, corn, strawberries, raspberries pear trees, cabbages, and kohlrabi. Geraniums were everywhere, scarlet and cheerful in gardens, pots, and window boxes. Rows of freshly cut hay striped the green fields, next to vast carpets of corn and wheat.
The small city of Bábolna is also headquarters for the Bábolna National Stud Farm, where Hungarians have been breeding and raising horses since 1789 and where, in 1836, a Syrian stallion, Shagya, was imported to start a line of Arabian horses that have fetched as much as $90,000 at auction. The company owns a splendid hotel, the Imperial, a stone’s throw from the horse stables.
We were taken to see gaggles of geese (geese are in flocks only when flying) in several of the company’s poultry yards and learned that geese lay eggs every other day for roughly half the year and then take it easy for most of the rest of the year. Bábolna ships the eggs—fertilized, of course, by the ganders—to about a thousand farmers around the country, most of them in Alföld—the Great Plains in eastern Hungary. Actually, the company only leases the eggs to the farmers. In its vertically integrated system, it also provides a special feed mix for the geese to eat. These farmers hatch the eggs and raise the geese for as long as 25 weeks, after which time they ship them on to another tier of farmers who force-feed the birds five times a day for 18 days. Antibiotics and additives are strictly forbidden; only specially prepared corn is fed. Károly Czinder, the director of Bábolna, does not like to call it force-feeding. He prefers the euphemism, ‘special feeding process’.
Richard W. Bruner is an American journalist (and member of Slow Food), now based in Budapest