According to French law, foie gras is defined as the liver of a duck or goose fattened by gavage (force feeding). In Spain and other countries, it is occasionally produced using natural feeding.
Ducks are force-fed twice a day for 12.5 days and geese three times a day for around 17 days. Ducks are typically slaughtered at 100 days and geese at 112 days.
In order to make foie gras, the duck or goose liver needs to be enlarged to nearly 10 times its size.
Foie gras is ideally very firm and smoothly textured, with a coloring of creamy white tinged with pink.
There are a few traditional methods for cooking foie gras, from simply searing whole in a hot pan to pureeing and making it into a mousse. It melts easily, so while it is often prepared with high heat—such as pan-searing—cooking it this way can be tricky.
A terrine of foie gras is actually one of the purest forms of preparations: The pieces of liver are layered in a loaf pan along with a bit of Sauternes or Armagnac and then the mold is weighted down, baked, chilled, and then sliced.
Foie gras is also often made into a mousse, where cooked foie gras is pureed in a food processor along with brandy and butter to make a smooth, silky paste to spread on fresh bread. You will also find goose or duck liver pate, which is made by blending the foie gras with cream and other ingredients into a spread for crackers.
There are three grades of foie gras: Grade A, Grade B, and Grade C.
The fat content of fatty goose liver is a startling 86.1 percent because birds store excess fat in their livers. A one-ounce serving of foie gras contains 12 grams of fat and 42 milligrams of cholesterol. To put that in perspective, a 3.5-ounce hamburger at McDonald’s contains 9 grams of fat and 25 milligrams of cholesterol.
What is generally regarded as the best foie gras is produced in the province of Strasbourg.
The name “foie gras” actually means ‘fatty liver’ in French.
Its origins date all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who noticed their geese would eat large amounts of food during the winter, which resulted in their livers expanding. The Egyptians soon began eating goose liver, taking it with them as sustenance on their trips down the Nile River. Ancient drawing show Egyptian farmers force-feeding the geese, a pictorial testament of the early origins of foie gras production.
The practice of goose 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 noted Egyptian farmers fattened geese and calves.
By the first century BC, the Romans force-fed their geese with figs, which made the Foie Gras richer and extra sweet. Soon, it became a prized delicacy, enjoyed by emperors and noble men.
After the fall of the Roman empire, goose liver temporarily vanished from European cuisine. Some claim that Gallic farmers preserved the foie gras tradition until the rest of Europe rediscovered it centuries later, but the medieval French peasant’s food animals were mainly pig and sheep. Others claim that the tradition was preserved by the Jews, who learned the method of enlarging a goose’s liver during the Roman colonisation of Judea or earlier from Egyptians. The Jews carried this culinary knowledge as they migrated farther north and west to Europe.
Eventually Foie Gras returned to the public scene when French chef Jean-Pierre Clause revived the recipe and perfected it into a royal dish. Thus, foie gras went from obscure to renowned throughout Europe, becoming a favorite of artists, including the great writer Alexander Dumas, and Italian composer Rossini. The King of France, Louis XVI, once proclaimed Foie Gras as “The Dish of Kings.”
Throughout the 20th century, Foie Gras was most predominantly produced in France, with the exception of a few other European countries. A luxury item once only enjoyed in the most affluent of homes, foie gras became largely unavailable in the 1980s when the American government banned the import of raw poultry foods. This spurred American farmers to take matters into their own hands, and several foie gras farms started appearing in the New York – Hudson Valley area.
The popularity of French foie gras rose considerably, bringing it into the ranks of the best-known and most-appreciated French dishes, thanks to its craftsmanship, its quality and its history. Today, France consumes more foie gras than any other country, but is also the number one producer, accounting for more than 75% of production worldwide.
Gavage is controversial because force-feeding is seen as a type of animal cruelty that goes beyond merely raising the animals to be slaughtered for food. The culinary community is somewhat divided on the issue,
with some chefs refusing to serve foie gras.