Foie gras, which literally translates to “fatty liver” in French, is the rich, buttery, and silky product of a fattened goose or duck liver. While it can be prepared many ways and has grown in popularity both as an ingredient and delicacy around the world, it is generally synonymous with French cuisine—and with controversy surrounding how it is made. In fact, depending on where you live, the sale or production of foie gras may be outlawed, which has only increased interest and curiosity in its origins.
So, What’s the History of Foie Gras Anyway?
“Foie gras, or the technique of gavage, is something that dates back to the ancient Egyptians,” says Franck Ete, the preferred private chef of Chateau de Courtomer, a distinguished French chateau open to guests that is located in the Orne region of Normandy.
Food historian Cathy Kaufman adds that cave paintings show what looks like workers cramming food down the gullets of geese during this period. “Jews in medieval Europe were known to force feed geese—probably to get fat in addition to the rich livers, as they couldn’t eat pork fat—although Jewish religious leaders of the 12th century thought the practice cruel, and therefore not kosher,” she adds.
Chef Mariana Alegría, who serves a scrumptious version of foie gras at Le Basilic, a fine dining French institution located in Cancun’s Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun, says foie gras spread further through the Roman Empire. “The Romans were all about excess, so it fit perfectly for them,” she says. “It was also known that many Popes loved foie gras and asked for it in luxurious dinners too. The noble class in Germany then started demanding it and producing it near Alsace, France, which is how it was introduced in that country.”
When it comes to la France, the country that would eventually popularize foie gras for the world, Ete tells us it was enjoyed there during the Renaissance by many of the lavish kings of the court. “When their tastes trickled down to the middle-class population, the rich food culture that we know today became an intricate part of [French] society,” he says. Kaufman adds: “Recipes with ‘fat liver’ start to show up in important mid-17th century French cookbooks which probably explains why it is important in France.”
Today, foie gras is very much considered a delicacy in French cuisine and is protected and controlled in a similar way as its wine and cheese-making processes. Ete notes, “It’s so much so that French law states that ‘foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomic heritage of France,’” which is France’s really cute way of saying: We’ve perfected it and probably make it best.
Why Is Foie Gras so Controversial?
Simply put, foie gras is produced by gavage, or force-feeding geese or ducks so that their livers become fattened up. “Gavage became mechanized in the 20th century, leading to complaints by animal rights activists both in the U.S. and Europe,” says Kaufman. “In the 1990s, a convention was reached that changed rearing environments to be more animal-friendly.” But even still, the process continues to be condemned by animal welfare advocates. According to PETA:
“To produce foie gras, workers ram pipes down the throats of male ducks or geese two or three times a day and pump as much as 4 pounds of grain and fat into their stomachs, causing their livers to swell to up to 10 times their normal size. They feel extremely ill, and many have difficulty standing or even breathing because of their engorged livers.”
“Either you love or you hate foie gras, but the one thing you need to remember is to respect the product, to respect the animal, honor the goose or duck in the dish you are preparing,” says Alegría. “I think it would be an awful thing if you waste a product that had suffered in the making.”
Should You Choose to Eat It, How Is Foie Gras Prepared?
“I almost always serve foie gras for guests at the Château as I feel it’s representative of classic French Gastronomy, and this region,” Ete tells us. Below, he shares a few preparation ideas.
Cold preparations: Cold preparations are more time consuming since they require low-heat cooking methods. Generally, they end up as foie terrines, pâtés, parfaits, foams, and mousses, often flavored with truffle, mushrooms, or brandy. These are then chilled and served at or below room temperature. Raw foie gras can also simply be cured in salt (cru au sel), served slightly chilled.
Hot preparations: Raw foie gras can additionally be roasted, sautéed, pan-seared (poêlé), or even grilled. Since there is such a high fat content, contact with heat needs to be hot and fast so it doesn’t melt in your pan! I personally prefer to de-vein the foie gras, but some chefs prefer not to de-vein the foie gras, as the veins can help preserve the integrity of the fatty liver. I then cut it into one-half- to one-inch pieces and sear over very high heat, keeping the middle medium-rare. Hot foie gras requires minimal spices; typically black pepper and salt. I use fleur de sel as a gourmet seasoning for hot foie gras to add a small textural aspect with its crunch. I particularly love cooking foie gras with apples and calvados, giving it a real Normandy twist!
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