Boy, it sure sounds high falootin’, but what IS foie gras?
French for “fat liver”, foie gras (fwa’ gra) is just that: the liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened. And it can’t be just any fattening. No siree. You can’t just feed the duck a bunch of Big Macs and honey buns. There is specific French law that defines the fattening process, called gavage.
Side note: The French are a bunch of control freaks when it comes to fancy food, don’t you think? They want to have a lock on champagne, insisting through law and international treaties that only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be referred to as “champagne”. Couldn’t the argument of genericized trademark be used against them? Harumph. And they hold the reins on this whole duck/goose liver business. What’s next: laws specifying the egg to cheese ratio in a quiche?
With a flavor described as buttery, rich and delicate, foie gras is one of the most popular and well-known delicacies in France. Its history dates back to 2500 BC when the ancient Egyptians practiced gavage. Today, France is the largest world producer of foie gras, though it is produced and consumed all over the world.
As you may have guessed, purposefully fattening ducks to produce liver suitable for the foodie palate has sparked some controversy with animal rights activists. Force-feeding through a tube down the esophagus have resulted in laws prohibiting the practice and the sale of the finished product in jurisdictions around the globe. One such ban occurred in Chicago in 2006, but was overturned in 2008, much to the delight of chefs and gastronomes citywide.
France leads the production in foie gras with about 78% of the world market share (in 2005). Hungary provides about 8% and Bulgaria around 6%. Other nations producing small fractions of the total foie gras supply include the United States, Canada, and China.
The French define three distinctive types of foie gras:
- Foie gras entire – whole foie gras made of one or two whole liver lobes. They can be cooked, semi-cooked or fresh.
- Foie gras – made of pieces of livers reassembled together.
- Bloc de foie gras – a fully-cooked block of at least 98% foie gras.
(I sure hope you are reading this in your best Steve Martin fake French accent.)
Since we have a Vegetarian on staff, I will not go into the details of gavage. If you want to know more, you sick-o, then you know where to find google. Instead, I will discuss what to do with the foie gras once you obtain it.
You can enjoy foie gras either hot or cold. Warm preparations often involve cooking over low heat, as the French prefer. Duck foie gras is more suitable to a warm service than goose, since duck liver has a slightly lower fat content. Pan searing, roasting and sautéing can be successful at high heat for a very brief time. You don’t want all the fat to melt away for goodness sake. The final dish should have a rare, uncooked center with a seared, warm exterior. Seasoning should be minimal: black pepper, paprika and salt at the most.
Common cold preparations include terrines, pates and mousses. They are slow-cooked and then served at or below room temperature. Believe it or not, the high fat content of foie gras makes it a great candidate for a savory ice cream. If you decide to put your duck liver into the ice cream maker, and you’re probably headed to the attic to get it right now, crust it with coarse salt for plating.
Even though seasoning is slight, accompaniments complement and enhance the flavor of the foie gras. Fruit is often served alongside, including pears, prunes, cherries, and figs. Besides fruit, you may see foie gras paired with truffles or Cointreau. Chefs are always experimenting with flavors though, so you never know what you might see on a menu with this delicacy.
If all this talk has whet your appetite and you want to learn more about foie gras, consider the “Bible” on the subject: Michael Ginor’s Foie Gras: A Passion. He is the co-owner and founder of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, the largest US producer.
Nutritionally speaking, do you want the good news or the bad news first? The good news: it’s a low carbohydrate food, containing only 2 grams per 2 ounce serving. That means it is on mine and Sagacious Hillbilly’s diet plans. The bad news: 24 grams of fat, most of the saturated variety. Reminds me of the age-old question posed by Jeffrey Steingarten. Why aren’t all the French dead? With cholesterol also at an all-time high, you will definitely want to save foie gras for a special occasion, and not place it on your weekly menu flanked by sloppy joes and grocery store rotisserie chicken.
Are you ready to taste foie gras? South Hills Market and Café serves foie gras, but their menu changes frequently. If your heart is set on it, you may want to call ahead to check the options. Want to get all Julia Child on us and sear it up at home? You may order foie gras online from Hudson Valley, among other suppliers. A 1.5 pound whole foie gras will set you back about $70, but you can get 8 ounces of mousse for only $25. Did I just use “only” and $25 dollars’ worth of liver in the same sentence? I think the foodies are rubbing off on me.
Does the whole idea of force-feeding ducks for the pleasure of French gastronomes make you sick to your stomach? Check out www.nofoiegras.org – an educational and activist site dedicated to ending the production of foie gras.
Next lesson: Confit. (After watching last season’s Next Food Network Star and hearing Lisa, the Martha Stewart Stalker say it, oh, only about 34,877 times…I gotta know more about it.)