Foie Gras may be sold cooked (cuit), semi-cooked (mi-cuit), or fresh (frais.)
Geese used are usually Moulard geese. The ducks used are also usually Moulards; usually a cross between Muscovy ducks (actually a New World duck), and ordinary domestic ducks (Anas platyrhynchos.) [Ed: Moulard = Mule. See entry on Mule Ducks.]
The birds are force-fed beyond what they would normally consume. This causes their livers to become very fatty. It’s obviously not just the liver that gets fattened, but the rest of the bird as well, and this is why many producers prefer to use duck. A fattened duck fetches a higher price than a fattened goose — as obviously the producers want to make the best use of the rest of the carcass as well.
Foie Gras has a buttery, smooth texture almost like (North American version of) pudding, and a sweet taste.
It is usually served in thin slices.
It is used in classical French cooking as a sumptuous garnish, particularly along with truffles as well. In France, the large sales times are at Christmas and New Year.
Foie Gras is a traditional product of Alsace, Midi-Pyrénées and Perigord in France. Fresh foie-gras is generally only available in markets right in those areas. Cooked Foie Gras is sold in tins or jars. Many turn up their noses at the tinned products, but that’s what Julia Child used. In France, you can also buy frozen.
As of 2006, there were 3 producers of Foie Gras in America, enabling consumers there to get it fresh: Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York State (which received a US $420,000 government grant in 2006.) Sonoma Foie Gras in California, and La Belle Farms in New York State. In the US, there are three grades of Foie Gras: A, B and C. A is best for seared slices that are going to be on display on a plate. B, which might have some veins or bile spots that have to be picked off, is fine for terrines.
Some Foie Gras product categories
Foie Gras entier: whole liver lobes
Foie Gras: pieces of liver pressed together
Bloc de Foie Gras (“block of Foie Gras”): a moulded block that is 98% or higher Foie Gras. Sold fully-cooked
Bloc de Foie Gras avec morceaux (“block of Foie Gras with pieces”): as above, but will be a minimum of 50% goose liver, 30% duck liver
Pâté de Foie Gras: must be at least 50% Foie Gras
Mousse de Foie Gras: must be at least 50% Foie Gras
Parfait de Foie Gras: must be at least 75% Foie Gras
Foie Gras in Quebec
In Quebec, the duck breeds being used to produce Foie Gras are Barbary or Mulard (Mulard being a cross between a male Barbary duck and a female common duck, often Pekin.) The ducklings are imported live from France, because Mulard breeds are sterile. Importation was banned in March 2006 when bird flu was detected in France; rules were passed in Quebec requiring the birds to be confined owing to fears of the disease, whereas they were previously free-ranging.
All Foie Gras made in Québec is made from duck except that made at La Ferme Basque in Charlevoix.
Quebec producers include:
- Ducs de Montrichard in Orford, Quebec. Started by Philippe Brugier from France in 1995;
- La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix. Run by Isabelle Mihura et Jean Jacques Etcheberrigaray. They import their geese from France by plane.
- Jean-François Émond of la Ferme d’Oc;
- Isabelle François, vice-president of Aux Champs d’Elisé in Marieville, Quebec;
- Palmex, a small farm in Carignan, Quebec, established 1998 by Pascal Fleury and his wife Francette from Landes, France. They persuaded Chef Alain Pellefique from France to come over and join them as well;
- Élevages Périgord in Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague, Quebec;
- Les bontés divines in Stoke, Quebec.
The Forced Feeding Process
The forced-feeding is called “gavage” in French.
Ducks and geese have elastic throats — witness how they swallow fish whole.
First the birds are allowed to feed roaming free-range. During this period, they are provided lots of feed that is high in starch.
Then the forced feeding begins. In French, this is called “finition d’engraissement” (“finishing of the fattening.”) Ducks are force-fed twice a day for 12 to 15 days; geese 3 times a day for 15 to 18 days. A tube about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) long is put into the bird’s mouth. At one end, there’s a funnel. The other end goes into the bird’s esophagus. The birds are usually fed corn boiled in fat to make it easier to digest. The food can be forced in by air, or by an auger.
Some say the animal is hurt by this process; others say it is not.
In response to this, a few producers have come up with a slightly altered method which they hope will be accepted as more humane by critics. In this method, the tube doesn’t go into the bird’s stomach, but rather into the sack that the birds have at the base of their necks where they hold large items such as fish. This then allows the bird to swallow the good at the rate it is able to, rather than having the food rammed down into it.
Animal activist’s release horrific, gruesome stories about how the forced feeding process injures and causes pain to the birds. But to be fair, their usual recommendation is not that consumers should buy only liver from birds that have been fattened naturally, but rather that consumers should desist from buying animal products altogether, so there is a larger agenda at play in the background on their part.
EU studies conducted so far (2007) to determine if the forced-feeding causes the birds any pain or distress have been inconclusive.
Some have observed the birds moving away from the person coming to feed them; others have observed the birds eagerly approaching them.
Activists usually show pictures of birds restricted in small cages, but many producers allow the birds to move about.
Production of Foie Gras is banned outright by laws targeting it specifically in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, and Poland. Its production is effectively banned under other laws in Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Production has been banned in Israel since March 2005. Israel had been the world’s fourth-largest producer, after France, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Soak fresh ones overnight in milk, port, water or Armagnac. Clean it at room temperature. If chilled, it can be more fragile and break apart while you are cleaning it. Separate the lobes so you can see all the veins, and remove them.
Foie Gras needs to be cooked over low heat. High heat causes too much of the fat to melt away and completely changes the product.
Foie Gras is often cooked in terrines, slow-baked in water baths.
Foie Gras can be flavoured with truffles or alcohol.
It is usually served with bread
To preserve it, some people follow a procedure along this method:
- season to taste;
- drizzle with Armagnac and port;
- stuff all into a glass preserving jar and seal jar;
- process at 212 F / 100 C for 35 minutes;
- best let age at room temperature for a few months.
Foie Gras in a sealed, unopened glass jar that says “en conserve” does not have to be refrigerated, but chill it before serving.
The Egyptians force-fed geese, possibly as early as 400 BC; some say possibly as early as 2500 BC. There are scenes in tombs of slaves pushing food down the throats of geese. Well into the Graeco-Roman period, Egypt was still renowned for its fattened geese.
The ancient Greeks force-fed geese as well.
Romans called it “iecur ficatum.” “Iecur” means “liver”; “ficatum” means essentially “fig”. They fed dried figs to the geese. By the 300s AD, however, the practice was also being done to other animals such as pigs.
Foie Gras disappeared from Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but slowly came back. It was reintroduced by Jews, who relied on poultry fat on as a cooking fat, and overfeeding geese and ducks created more “schmaltz” to use. The liver was an added bonus.
By the 1500s, the food writer Bartolomeo Scappi noted that Jews were raising geese whose liver could weigh 2 to 3 pounds (around 1 kg.)
Ironically, though, there was debate amongst some Jews over whether they should be eating it (some still debate the matter today.) Being high in blood, liver isn’t particularly kosher and can only be made kosher by broiling it, which sadly though also destroys the product. Slowly, though, it became a Jewish delicacy that by the end of the 1600s was being noted by cooks across Europe. Many Jews settled in Alsace, bringing the tradition there.
It’s often reported, inaccurately, that Foie Gras was “invented” in Strasbourg, Alsace, in 1779, by a man named Jean-Pierre Clause (chef to Marshal Contades, the military governor of Strasbourg from 1762 until 1788.) What Clause created was a dish made with Foie Gras, “pâté de Contades”, which is the first known pâté made from Foie Gras.
America banned the importation of Foie Gras from France in February 2004, along with other French meats, saying that sanitation in French packing plants had fallen below acceptable standards for American consumers. The US ban lasted for 8 months, and was lifted in October 2004.
On 29 September 2004, the Governor of California signed a bill banning in California the production of Foie Gras through forced-feeding, or the sale of foie-gras from anywhere produced by the same method. The law comes into effect on July 2012.
In 2005, 23,500 tonnes of Foie Gras was produced in the world. Of that total, 18,450 tonnes (or 75%) was produced in France. Of the 18,450 tonnes, 96% was duck liver, 4% goose liver. France, however, consumed 19,000 tonnes in the same year, making it a net importer, mostly from Hungary, the world’s second-largest producer (1,920 tonnes in 2005). France imports it unprocessed from Hungary, and then processes it in France so that it can be labelled French. Bulgaria was the third-largest producer in 2005, at 1,500 tonnes.
In April 2006, Chicago City Council passed a law banning restaurants from serving Foie Gras. The fines will range from $250 to $500 US.
Literature & Lore
“Again Macy’s have their Marceau brand of French pâté de foie gras, the first in five years, packed in five sizes.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. June 1948.
“Foie” means “liver”; “gras” means “fat.”
Many Romance languages take their word for “liver” from the Roman word for fig — owing to the Roman practice of creating Foie Gras, which they called “iecur ficatum”, by feeding figs to the geese.
In Latin, it was “iecur” that meant “liver”, while “ficatum” meant “fig”, but it was the “ficatum” part that became “fegato” in Italian, etc.
Alinat, Gui. Foie Gras ban is the wrong food fight. St Petersburg , Florida: St Petersburg Times. 15 December 2004.
Associated Press. Foie Gras Banned In Chicago. CBS News. 27 April 2006. Retrieved May 2006 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/04/27/national/main1550028.shtml.
Chancellor, Alexander. Foie gras protests are hard to swallow. London: Daily Telegraph. 15 April 2010.
Gardner, Jessica. Group fights funding of Foie Gras producer. Middletown, New York State:Times Herald-Record. 26 May 2006.
Thanh Ha, Tu. Quebec Foie Gras producers cry fowl. Toronto, Canada: The Globe and Mail. Saturday, 4 March 2006. Page A6.