Delicacy or Barbaric Practice?
Foie Gras directly translated means “fat liver” and refers to duck or goose liver from force-fed animals. The liver, which is grossly enlarged by methodically fattening the bird, (also called: cramming) has been counted as a delicacy since classical times, when the force-feeding of the birds was practised in Classical Rome (the Romans used figs for this).
It is commonly accepted that this practice dates back much further, to ancient Egypt and was possibly picked up by the Jews during their period of “bondage” and passed on to the classical civilisations.
In modern times the Foie Gras of the south west of France and that of Strasbourg, in the Alsace, have been the most renowned, although much of what is now consumed in France has its origin in Eastern Europe (mainly Hungary), Israel and China.
The French are by far the largest consumers of Foie Gras and it is very unlikely that the opinion will swing against the force-feeding practices, despite rumblings of opposition from around the world. The French, whilst acknowledging that the practice is carried to quite unnatural lengths, are apt to say that the birds themselves grow to like their additional daily rations of maize pushed down their throats through a special funnel. An additional argument that the culinary end justifies the means is given by the Larousse Gastronomique from an author writing about traditional foods and dishes of Alsace: “The goose is nothing but man has made of it an instrument for the output of a marvellous product, a kind of living hothouse in which there grows the supreme fruit of gastronomy.”
The season for producing Foie Gras is in winter. Opinions differ as to whether that of the goose or that of the duck is preferable. The type of corn used as feed and the soil in which it grows, for example, are crucial to fattening the birds optimally. Drinking water also has an influence, so every farmer has a method of improving its quality with white clay or other elements. As the bird grows heavier its liver is correspondingly larger. At nine or ten weeks on the average, and in the care of specially trained geese farmers, the geese are fed generously four or five times a day with corn. Over two or three weeks, this method gives the goose livers a golden colour. Every goose keeper has a secret formula for the feed he uses. The corn is either cooked or softened with vegetable oil and Vitamin C. It is vital that feedings be given gently, so that the birds do not incur undue stress. Artificial additives and antibiotics are forbidden, as are any elements the birds cannot break down naturally. The feedings raise the cholesterol level in the goose and blood is transported to the liver and absorbed in great quantity there, such that the liver swells to about three pounds. A quality goose liver is golden yellow and is soft and silky to the touch.
There are very precise French regulations about the marketing of all Foie Gras products.
Foie Gras is available in four forms in France:
1) Foie Gras cru (Raw Foie Gras) only sold during the holiday season at the end of the year. It must be well lobbed, round and putty coloured.
2) Foie Gras frais (Fresh Foie Gras) can be purchased cooked from a delicatessen, generally in pots. It will keep at the most for a week, covered in the fridge.
3) Foie Gras mi-cuit pasteurisé (Semi cooked, pasteurised) in cans. Will keep for up to three months, opened in the fridge.
4) Foie Gras de conserve (Preserved Foie Gras) in jars is the most traditional preparation. Sterilised and preserved in its own fat, it will keep for years in a cool dark dry place and improves like wine.
A few pointers on Duck Foie Gras:
- Fresh Foie Gras should be firm to the touch, have a shiny appearance and be as pink as possible The finer the texture the better the product.
- In terrines it is most important that the cream-coloured liver should be rosy and pink inside.
- The typical delicate flavour is at its best when the liver is semi-cooked. It is in this form that it is served in restaurants or sold by good traiteurs, although it is also available in vacuum packs, jars and cans.
- The “Foie Gras entire” is finer when canned. Usually whole livers or one single large piece of liver are used for canning.
- If the label states only Foie Gras the product consists of several pieces.
- Bloc de Foie Gras avec morceaux (with pieces) refers to compressed liver containing pieces of various sizes.
- Parfait de Foie Gras contains a minimum of 75 % Foie Gras together with some ordinary poultry liver.
- Pâtés, mousses, médallions, purées and galantines marked Foie Gras must contain a minimum of 50% Foie Gras.
Some of the best Foie Gras these days comes from Hungary and according to the experts, Hungarian goose liver tastes its very best submerged in garlic milk and stored in the refrigerator overnight, then rinsed and braised in goose fat at high heat.
Good quality Foie Gras is available in Australia from Simon Johnson Purveyor of Quality Food. Whether gastronomic means justify the end product I leave for you to decide… after you have tried it at least once!