OROSHAZA, Hungary (Reuters Life!) - Gyorgy Habsburg is a distinguished aristocrat with a passion for foie gras.
Habsburg, grandson of Emperor Charles I, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is a patron of the first foie gras festival in the town of Oroshaza, the foie gras capital of central Europe, 200 km (125 miles) southeast of Budapest.
“I love foie gras,” the 44-year-old Habsburg said. “It can come in any form, there are various ways of making it, but I like it in any old shape.”
With annual production of about 1,700 tonnes, Hungary is one the world’s top foie gras producers, with exports worth $89 million in 2007.
But with falling foreign orders amid protests from animal rights groups -- who say the process of force-feeding geese to produce the enlarged liver needed for foie gras is cruel -- producers say this key driver of gourmand tourism and one of the signature staples of Hungarian cuisine is now at risk.
That risk may be more than culinary types, like Norbert Hamusics, are able to palate.
“Foie gras is foie gras, there is no comparison,” said Hamusics, 19, who cooks in one of Budapest’s top restaurants.
There are over 50 ways of cooking it, in a risotto, wrapped in smoked bacon and served with spicy ratatouille, or marinated in sweet Tokaj wine and served in brioche with onion puree.
But for most Hungarians, including Hamusics, nothing seems to beat the traditional roast foie gras served cold in its own lard with red onions, a variety also on offer at the festival, where organizers stockpiled a whopping one tonne of foie gras.
Force-feeding geese, a three-week process by the end of which the liver swells to about four times its original size, dates back more than 400 years in Hungary where up until the 1980s goose farming was largely a family business.
Erzsebet Lorinc, 63, an ethnic Hungarian living in a small village near Cluj-Napoca in neighboring Romania, still remembers her childhood years when her mother used to feed and cull geese herself in the old way.
Today, she no longer raises geese, but foie gras still finds its way onto the dinner table every once in a while.
“We have it quite often, mostly at weekends and on holidays,” said Lorinc, who is an omnivore when it comes to most types of liver, but still likes foie gras in its own lard best.
Producers say it would be enough for every Hungarian to eat just over half a pound of foie gras a year to save the industry.
But with raw goose liver going for about 3,000 forints ($15.15) a pound, most buyers may find the price tag too big to stomach, especially amid the country’s worst recession for almost two decades.
Habsburg, whose family was banned from Hungary until the end of communism in 1989, said he threw his name behind the festival in a bid to ensure the survival of the foie gras industry, which provides about 15,000 people with a living.
“A year ago I looked a bit into goose farming and saw how many jobs it created. This is tremendous,” he said. “That is why we need to do something to ensure that these jobs are saved.”
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Paul Casciato