WHAT IS FOIE GRAS? READ THE FINE PRINT!
The French eat 90% of the foie gras they make themselves. That’s how much they like it, but they didn’t invent it. Although the Egyptians might have force-fed their birds, we’re not sure that they ate foie gras. The Greeks probably did, since the 4th-century Greek poet Archestratus wrote about it in his Gastronomy. The liver is the soul of the goose, he said.
Foie gras is made using a process called gavage, which consists of force-feeding ducks or geese through a feeding tube to fatten them. The Romans stuffed dried figs down their throats. In Latin, the word for liver even comes from fig, ficus. Scipio Metellus, a Roman chef, had the idea of soaking still warm livers in honey and milk to swell them even more before cooking.
Apart from the region of Béarn in the southwest, this practice disappeared in medieval France, coming back to life in the southwest and Alsace during the Renaissance.
French foie gras is made by force-feeding corn to geese and ducks, and still, occasionally, figs, which swells the livers.
Goose foie gras has traditionally been the most cherished because it is fattier, but it cannot be produced year round. Duck liver is less fatty, and can be produced year round and industrially, meeting the ever-increasing demand.
The fattened liver can be made into terrine, pâté, mousse, parfait, and a host of other things, and, in more recent times, there is a trend of cutting fresh foie gras into thin slices and pan-searing it. It can be eaten fresh or preserved in glass jars, and can be seasoned with truffles, port, Armagnac or Sauternes. Southwesterners prefer a simple, less perfumed foie gras, while Alsacians like to add flavor.
When purchasing, there are legal distinctions in names that indicate the purity and therefore determine the price:
- Foie gras entier means that it contains the actual lobes of the liver. The only legally allowed addition is truffles. As it’s solid, you cut it with a knife, just like you do extra-tender beef filet.
- Foie gras consists of pieces of liver that are put back together and pressed.
- Bloc de foie gras is reconstituted liver combined with other ingredients, but containing at least 50% foie gras for goose, and 30% for duck .
- Parfaits are preparations containing 75% foie gras and made by mechanical means, to which regular, unfattened liver is added.
- Médaillon or pâte de foie de canard or d’oie contains 50% duck or goose foie gras or bloc de foie gras in the middle, surrounded by forcemeat.
- Galantine is a butcher’s mixture of meats and other forcemeats, with no defined percentage of foie gras.
- Mousse contains 50% foie gras mixed with forcemeat, giving it the texture of foie gras.
Terrine is pure foie gras pressed into pâté shape.
Forcemeat can consist of one or several ingredients, including pork, veal or chicken fat; pork or chicken liver; scraps from deveining; poaching fat; eggs; milk; lactoproteins; flour, and starch.
Foie gras comes in a jar, plastic package or can or fresh from the butcher. When purchasing, be aware of the different cooking preparations, since the temperature at which it is cooked and the method of cooking change the flavor and shelf-life. Generally speaking, fresh is better.
It is important to make sure you are being sold what you ask for in both restaurants and shops. As a consumer, you have a legal right.
The French don’t eat foie gras every day. Traditionally, it is for special occasions and holiday meals, especially Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Coming soon: What to Eat with Foie Gras
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for theGaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, What to Eat in France and What to Eat in Venice.