Foie gras is the French term for “fat liver” and it refers to a food product made from the liver of a specially fattened goose or duck. According to French law, force feeding a duck or goose is necessary to produce a high quality foie gras grade liver. The force feeding induces the liver to convert extra food into fat which is stuffed underneath the duck’s skin and inside the liver itself. Eventually, the liver becomes soft and white and the duck is slaughtered only for the liver. The force feeding also produces a nutty, buttery texture in the liver which is quite unlike any other meat or sweetbread.
Force feeding birds to produce a fatter, softer textured bird was a technique first invented by the Egyptians in 2498 BC to 2345 B.C. Bas relief in the ancient city of Saqqara are sown in Goose was a prized dish in Egypt and this process was primarily invented to produce a rich, fatty bird for roasting or cooking. The Egyptians also presented fatted birds as gifts to visiting royalty like Agesilaus, King of Sparta. By the late second century, this process of fattening the bird had spread over to Rome and the Romans first noticed that the force feeding procedure produced a fat liver which was delicious in taste and texture. There are several recorded mentions of the dish in Roman literature with Greek poet Cratinus, Roman statesman Cato the Elder and Julius Pollux, a Greek rhetorician; all mentioning the process and the liver in their writings. This process of creating the fattened birds and their livers was carried out by Jewish slaves in the Roman territories. The process then spread over to Jewish aristocracy in Palestine and became very popular in the Mediterranean. Jews who had migrated to France and Germany carried the technique with them to these countries too.
How is Foie Gras Produced?
Traditionally, the ancient Egyptians held the duck neck between their knees which forcing soaked wheat down their gullets. The Romans used the same technique but they preferred to use figs and honey. It is also stated that the duck’s feet were nailed down to the floor to prevent them from exercising as exercise would cause the fat in the body and liver to automatically reduce. Nowadays, the goslings or ducklings are kept in straw for the first four weeks. They are then fed on grasses for a few weeks. Only males are force fed corn for a period of 12-18 days. The ducks are fed twice daily while geese are fed up to five times daily. In a few areas, the force feeding is still done manually but special machines are also available to carry out the process.
France is the largest producer of foie gras and French law states a clear classification for high grade foie gras. The major categories are as follows-
- Foie gras entier is the entire liver or whole liver lobes which are processed into three different standards: fresh (frais), semi-cooked (mi-cuit) or cooked (cuit)
- Foie gras in which pieces of liver are packed together.
- Bloc de foie gras consisting of a large fully cooked block of foie gras that is made up of 98 percent or more foie gras
- Other categories are also present like pâté de foie gras, parfait de foie gras, mousse de foie gras and other preparations which contain foie gras in differing amounts.
Popular Foie Gras Recipes
French cuisine has the most recipes for this luxury ingredient. Foie gras contains a large amount of fat. For example, goose liver has a very rich taste with subtle fatty tastes. Duck foie gras contains lesser fat but it has a stronger texture. As a result, most French chefs recommend cooking the liver slowly over low heat. The cooked foie gras may be served warm or chilled. Pate de foie gras is a very popular traditional dish. The foie gras is enclosed in pastry and bacon and served whole. To complement the flavor of foie gras, chefs usually use truffle, mushrooms, brandy etc to create terrines, pates, parfaits, foams and mousses. One of the most popular French dishes in foie gras au torchon in which a whole lobe of foie gras is wrapped with a towel and slow cooked in a double boiler. Raw foie gras is also cured in salt and served chilled.
Foie Gras Consumption Criteria
Foie gras has a very delicate taste and for this reason it is usually served as a starter. According to French cuisine, foie gras is not served with butter, gherkins or acidic foods as it interferes with the taste. Sweet white wines like Sauternes are recommended along with the dish.
Foie Gras Buying and Storing Tips
Fresh foie gras is very rare outside France and it has a very short shelf life. Fresh liver has a refrigerator life of 3 weeks but it should be used immediately if possible for the best flavor. Frozen or canned foie gras is sold online through specialty websites. Frozen foie gras can be stored for one year but it loses flavor over time. Fully cooked canned foie gras can be stored indefinitely.
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of controversy over the force feeding of ducks. Several countries have banned the force feeding or gavage procedure as it is considered to be cruel and injurious to the duck. Animal rights activists like PETA, Vival and Humane Society Of the United States contend that the process is inhumane and can make it difficult for the bird to breath.