Foie gras (in English; French for "fat liver") is "the liver of a duck or a goose that has been specially fattened by gavage" (as defined by French law). Pâté de foie gras was formerly known as "Strassburg pie" in English due to that city being a major producer of this food product.
Foie gras is one of the most popular and well-known delicacies in French cuisine and its flavour is described as rich, buttery, and delicate, unlike that of a regular duck or goose liver. Foie gras can be sold whole, or prepared into mousse, parfait, or pâté (the lowest quality), and is typically served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as toast or steak.
The technique of gavage dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians began keeping birds for food and deliberately fattened the birds through force-feeding. Today, France is by far the largest producer and consumer of foie gras, though it is produced and consumed worldwide, particularly in other European nations, the United States, and China.
Gavage-based foie gras production is controversial, due to the force feeding procedure, and the possible health consequences of an enlarged liver, and a number of countries and other jurisdictions have laws against force feeding or the sale of foie gras due to how it is traditionally produced.
The practice of geese-fattening spread from Egypt to the Mediterranean. The earliest reference to fattened geese is from the 5th century BC Greek poet Cratinus, who wrote of geese-fatteners, yet Egypt maintained its reputation as the source for fattened geese. When the Spartan king Agesilaus visited Egypt in 361 BC, he was greeted with fattened geese and calves, the riches of Egyptian farmers.
It was not until the Roman period, however, that foie gras is mentioned as a distinct food, which the Romans named iecur ficatum; iecur means liver and ficatum derives from ficus, meaning fig in Latin. The emperor Elagabalus fed his dogs on foie gras during the four years of his chaotic reign. Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) credits his contemporary, Roman gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius, with feeding dried figs to geese in order to enlarge their livers:
Hence, the term iecur ficatum, fig-stuffed liver; feeding figs to enlarge a goose's liver may derive from Hellenistic Alexandria, since much of Roman luxury cuisine is of Greek inspiration. Ficatum was closely associated with animal liver and it became the root word for "liver in each of these languages: foie in French, hígado in Spanish, fígado in Portuguese, fegato in Italian and ficat in Romanian, all meaning "liver"; this etymology has been explained in different manners.
The Judaic dietary law, Kashrut, forbade lard as a cooking medium, and butter, too, was proscribed as an alternative since Kashrut also prohibited mixing meat and dairy products. Jewish cuisine used olive oil in the Mediterranean, and sesame oil in Babylonia, but neither cooking medium was easily available in Western and Central Europe, so poultry fat (known in Yiddish as schmaltz), which could be abundantly produced by overfeeding geese, was substituted in their stead. The delicate taste of the goose's liver was soon appreciated; Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof of Kassel wrote in 1562 that the Jews raise fat geese and particularly love their livers. Some Rabbis were concerned with the kashrut dietary complications consequent to overfeeding geese, because Jewish law prohibits eating a treyf animal. The chasam sofer, Rabbi Moses Sofer, contended that it is not a treyf animal as none of its limbs is damaged. This matter remained a debated topic in Jewish dietary law until the Jewish taste for goose liver declined in the 19th century. Another kashrut matter, still a problem today, is that even properly slaughtered and inspected meat must be drained of blood before being considered fit to eat. Usually, salting achieves that; however, as liver is regarded as "(almost) wholly blood", broiling is the only way of kashering. Properly broiling a foie gras while preserving its delicate taste is an arduous endeavour few engage in seriously. Even so, there are grilled meat restaurants in Israel, such as Tel Aviv's Yehuda Avazi's, that offer grilled goose foie gras.
Gentile gastronomes began appreciating fattened goose liver, which they could buy in the local Jewish ghetto of their cities. In 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, chef de cuisine to Pope Pius V, published his cookbook Opera, wherein he describes that "the liver of [a] domestic goose raised by the Jews is of extreme size and weighs [between] two and three pounds." In 1581, Marx Rumpolt of Mainz, chef to several German nobles, published the massive cookbook Kochbuch, describing that the Jews of Bohemia produced livers weighing more than three pounds; he lists recipes for it—including one for goose liver mousse. János Keszei, chef to the court of Michael Apafi, the prince of Transylvania, included foie gras recipes in his 1680 cookbook A New Book About Cooking, instructing cooks to "envelop the goose liver in a calf's thin skin, bake it and prepare [a] green or [a] brown sauce to accompany it. I used goose liver fattened by Bohemian Jews, its weight was more than three pounds. You may also prepare a mush of it."
|Country||Production (tons, 2005)||% of total|
|United States||340 (2003)||1.4%|
|Canada (Quebec)||200 (2005)||0.9%|
Hungary is the world's second-greatest foie gras "Libamáj" producer and the largest exporter (1,920 tonnes in 2005). France is the principal market for Hungarian foie gras; mainly exported raw. Approximately 30,000 Hungarian goose farmers are dependent on the foie gras industry. French food companies spice, process, and cook the foie gras so it may be sold as a French product in its domestic and export markets.
Bulgaria produced 1,500 tons of foie gras in 2005; Québec, Canada, also has a thriving foie gras industry; Canadian chefs use Québec foie gras as a demonstration of national pride. The demand for foie gras in the Far East is such that China has become a sizeable producer; however, Chinese foie gras is viewed with some suspicion by the French.
In France, foie gras exists in different, legally-defined presentations, from the expensive to the cheap:
Additionally, there exist pâté de foie gras; mousse de foie gras (both must contain 50% or more foie gras); parfait de foie gras (must contain 75% or more foie gras); and other preparations (no legal obligation established).
Fully cooked preparations are generally sold in either glass containers or metal cans for long-term preservation. Whole, fresh foie gras is usually unavailable in France, except in some producers' markets in the producing regions. Frozen whole foie gras sometimes is sold in French supermarkets.
Whole foie gras is readily available from gourmet retailers in Quebec, the United States, Hungary, Australia, Argentina and regions with a sizable market for the product. In US, raw foie gras is classified as Grade A, B or C, with Grade A typically being the best for searing.
Typical foie gras production involves force-feeding birds more food than they would eat in the wild, and much more than they would voluntarily eat domestically. The feed, usually corn boiled with fat (to facilitate ingestion), deposits large amounts of fat in the liver, thereby producing the buttery consistency sought by the gastronome.
The geese or ducks used in foie gras production are usually kept in a building on straw for the first four weeks, then kept outside for some weeks, feeding on grasses that toughen the esophagus. The birds are then brought inside for gradually longer periods while introduced to a high starch diet. The next feeding phase, which the French call gavage or finition d'engraissement, or "completion of fattening", involves forced daily ingestion of controlled amounts of feed for 12 to 15 days with ducks and for 15 to 18 days with geese. During this phase ducks are usually fed twice daily while geese are fed up to 4 times daily.
The feed is administered using a funnel fitted with a long tube (20–30 cm long), which forces the feed into the animal's esophagus; if an auger is used, the feeding takes about 45 to 60 seconds. Modern systems usually use a tube fed by a pneumatic pump; with such a system the operation time per duck takes about 2 to 3 seconds. During feeding, efforts are made to avoid damaging the bird's esophagus, which could cause injury or death.
Generally, French preparations of foie gras are over low heat, as fat melts faster from the traditional goose foie gras than the duck foie gras produced in most other parts of the world. American and other New World preparations, typically employing duck foie gras, have more recipes and dish preparations for serving that foie gras hot, rather than cool or cold.
The recent (in French culinary tradition) introduction of duck foie gras has resulted in some recipes returning to France from America. In Hungary, goose foie gras traditionally is fried in goose fat, which is then poured over the foie gras and left to cool; it also is eaten warm, after being fried or roasted, with some chefs smoking the foie gras over a cherry wood fire.
In a very traditional form of terrine, au torchon ("in a towel"), a whole lobe of foie is molded, wrapped in a towel and slow-cooked in a bain-marie. For added flavor (from the Maillard reaction), the liver may be seared briefly over a fire of grape vine clippings (sarments) before slow-cooking in a bain-marie; afterwards, it is pressed served cold, in slices.
Raw foie gras is also cured in salt ("cru au sel"), served slightly chilled.
Given its high fat content, foie gras can be made into a savory ice cream, typically crusted with coarse salt.
Raw foie gras can be roasted, sauteed, pan-seared (poëllé) or (with care and attention), grilled. As foie gras has high fat content, contact with heat needs to be brief and therefore at high temperature, lest it burn or melt. Optimal structural integrity for searing requires the foie gras to be cut to a thickness between 15 and 25 mm, resulting in a rare, uncooked center. Some chefs prefer not to devein the foie gras, as the veins can help preserve the integrity of the fatty liver. It is increasingly common to sear the foie gras on one side only, leaving the other side uncooked. Practitioners of molecular gastronomy such as Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck restaurant first flash-freeze foie gras in liquid nitrogen, with the searing process resulting in a piece at room temperature.
Hot foie gras requires minimal spices; typically black pepper, paprika (in Hungary) and salt. It has become fashionable in 3-star restaurants to use artisanal coarse salt to provide a visual and textural garnish.
Most presentations of foie gras match it to a sweet fruit, including quince, pears, apples, prunes, plums, cherries, raspberries, blackcurrants, huckleberries, figs or elderberries. These can be in the form of sauces, coulis, jam, stewed, caramelized or pureed.
Chefs have been experimenting with various other contrasting and strong, supporting savory flavors, ranging from red beets to onion chutneys to sweet corn and peas to various mushrooms including morels or cepes to bittersweet chocolate molés.
Wine matching is traditionally a late-harvest, Botrytised dessert wine such as Sauternes, Vin de paille (a savory Jura wine), Tokay or new-world late harvest wine, as the rich, sweet flavours go well together; classic wine and food matching. Some diners prefer foie gras with a spicy white wine, such as a Gewurtztraminer from Alsace. When foie gras is served with stronger sauces such as port-wine reductions or bitter chocolate sauces, a fortified wine such as Port or Banyuls is in order. Other dessert wines can match foie gras, including Jurançon wines from Béarn, or a Muscat grape such as Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, or an ice wine, ice cider, or sweet Champagne wines. When foie gras is served with truffles, mushrooms or other earthy-type flavours, it can be paired with a red burgundy wine or burgundy-style Pinot Noirs.
Duck foie gras is the slightly cheaper and, since a change of production methods in the 1950s, by far the most common kind, particularly in the US. The taste of duck foie gras is often referred to as musky with a subtle bitterness. Goose foie gras is noted for being less gamey and smoother, with a nuttier flavor.
Gavage-based foie gras production is controversial, due to the force feeding procedure, and the possible health consequences of an enlarged liver, and a number of countries and other jurisdictions have laws against force feeding or the sale of foie gras due to how it is traditionally produced. In modern gavage-based foie gras production, force feeding takes place 12−18 days before slaughter. The duck or goose is typically fed a controlled amount of corn mash through a tube inserted in the animal's cuticle-lined esophagus. Foie gras production has been banned in nations such as some members of the European Union, Turkey, and Israel because of the force-feeding process. Foie gras producers maintain that force feeding ducks and geese is not uncomfortable for the animals nor is it hazardous to their health. The city of Chicago banned the production and selling of foie gras in 2006. Animal rights and welfare groups such as PETA, Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States contend that foie gras production methods, and force feeding in particular, constitute cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. Specific complaints include livers swollen to many times their normal size, impaired liver function, expansion of the abdomen making it difficult for birds to walk, death if the force feeding is continued, and scarring of the esophagus. PETA claims that the insertion and removal of the feeding tube scratch the throat and the esophagus, causing irritations and wounds and thus exposing the animal to risk of mortal infections. A far greater number of ducks are force fed for the last 3 weeks of their lives for the Peking Duck dish. The more intense opposition to Foie Gras may be connected to its sybaritic associations. Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain and Chef/Writer Michael Ruhlman have both come down in favor of Foie Gras and pointed out that properly raised ducks for the production of foie gras are treated very humanly, and that the footage seen in the videos of critics Is cruel but that no reputable chef would buy such product.
In June 2007, research uncovered a possible link between foie gras and Amyloidosis-related disorders (including Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, type II diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis). Transgenic mice with predisposition to amyloidosis were either fed or injected with amyloid protein extracted from commercial foie gras. Animals in both groups displayed "extensive systemic pathological (amyloid) deposits". After cooking the foie gras per manufacturer specification, mice injected with its extracted amyloid showed reduced but still noticeable effect. The authors conclude that exposure to serum amyloid A in foie gras is the likely cause, and suggest it could be a contributing factor of certain diseases in a susceptible population.
Some research exists which suggests that excessive consistent foie gras consumption "may be linked to the onset of diseases including Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis." However, the research is disputed and a correlation between foie gras consumption and these diseases has not been confirmed.
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