The politically incorrect delicacy: how to enjoy foie gras
If you don't have any, or decide to ignore, your moral objections to foie gras, here's our tips for how to select, serve and enjoy it. Plus our family recipe for home-made foie gras.
Like snails and frogs, it's one of those French delicacies that doesn't bear too much thinking about if you want to enjoy it. And it's the most politically incorrect of all French culinary traditions.
But foie gras is one of the standard entries on a French holiday menu and this year will be no exception, despite a brief scare that bird flu would encroach upon this much-looked-forward-to Christmas tradition (and the source of as much as 80 percent of annual sales).
Although its roots reach back to ancient Egypt — where geese apparently fattened themselves up on the banks of the Nile — foie gras was originally a regional speciality of Alsace; today, the regions of the Gers, the Landes and the Dordogne have placed foie gras at the top of their lists of 'produits du terroirs'. Any supermarket in France, however, will present an overwhelming selection of foie gras varieties.
The gavage debate
There are many French people just as horrified by the idea as you might be. Foie gras is created by the process of gavage: force-feeding the bird with a diet of whole corn, distributed three times a day through some kind of feeding tube down the throat.
A duck is fed (gavé) for a period of 12 days, 20 days for a goose, during which the liver grows from 50g to as much as 600g. The bird is then butchered.
Fans say the process is inspired by the bird's natural rhythm: this is the time of year the birds fatten up in preparation for spring migration.
Opponents say that not only does the gavage hurt and stress the animal, but that foie gras is the result of a pathological condition: you are, in effect, eating a tumour.
Nonetheless, if you're invited to a French holiday dinner or want to serve one yourself, foie gras is a likely menu entry.
If you are among those who find the whole idea distasteful, remember that foie gras is a traditional dish, and an expensive one, and if you choose to not partake, think about how to do so tactfully.
Tips and tricks
Here we tell you the top five things you need to know about choosing and serving foie gras:
1) GOOSE V. DUCK
Goose foie gras is more expensive and is therefore often thought of as the 'better' of the two. But the expense is largely linked to the higher cost of production (geese eat more and the gavage process takes longer); lots of foie gras lovers will say they prefer duck and serving a good quality foie gras de canard is in no way an insult to your guests.
The flavour of the foie gras d'oie is more delicate and less gamey and the texture is somewhat smoother; duck is more flavourful, which is good or bad depending on your taste buds.
What you don't generally see, however, is mixing the two on the same plate.
2) ENTIER V. BLOC
Foie gras, in either entier or bloc form, calls for only four ingredients: the liver, salt, pepper and a 'noble' alcohol, usually cognac or armagnac.
You see foie gras entier (whole) is exactly what it sounds like: a whole liver, although an industrial foie gras entier is often several lobes of liver squashed together.
A bloc de foie gras is a liver that has been minced up and mixed with water to make a kind of very dense pâté, either with or without morceaux ('bits') of intact liver in it. This is usually slightly cheaper than a foie gras entier but is still a luxury product. As with the duck or goose question, it's a matter of taste.
If you buy a bloc avec morceaux, check the label for the percentage of whole-liver bits; a standard quality product should contain 50 percent for a goose foie gras or 30 percent for a duck. A foie gras truffé, by the way, should contain at least three percent of truffles.
Either way, figure on 50-70g per person as an adequate serving for an entrée course.
3) VARIATIONS ON THE THEME: PÂTÉ AND MOUSSE
Parfait, médaillon, pâté, galantine and mousse de foie gras are all variants you'll see on the shelves; they all contain at least 50 percent foie gras mixed with liver from plain-old-chickens.
While these are all delicious, they aren't normally what is called for on formal occasions; if you're going for traditional, then serve foie gras entier or bloc.
4) BREAD AND WINE
You'll see little 'toasts' labelled 'pour fois gras' in the supermarket, but the preferred way of serving it is simply on thin, lightly toasted slices of pain de campagne or pain de mie.
A white dessert wine, most often a Sauterne or Jurançon, is the 'correct' accompaniment; in Alsace, they often opt for a Gewurztraminer.
5) SERVE ROOM TEMPERATURE
Take it out of the refrigerator several hours ahead of time; it's often recommended to cut it, just before serving, with a very hot knife to make your slices nice and neat.
Never spread it; the idea is to place a slice on the bread and to eat them together.
DIY foie gras
If you're a gourmet-type, you can also easily find foie gras cru and prepare it yourself. It has to be done ahead of time but it's not really that hard and is sure to impress.
(Recipe thanks to Geneviève B., Expatica France editor Clair Whitmer's mother-in-law!)
Foie gras de canard au gros sel
- Take a foie gras de canard (entier, cru) weighing about 450-500g. (The recipe calls for a duck liver because the weight is important here; a too-big liver will end up undercooked and a too-small one too salty.)
- Remove the vein without pulling the liver apart. (If you do 'break' it, then simply push it back together with your hands.)
- Put in a container covered with very cold water, a few ice cubes and a pinch of salt and then refrigerate for two hours.
- Take it out and dry it carefully.
- Put it in a casserole dish and cover it entirely with a sweet wine (see above: Sauterne or Jurançon). Let it marinate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
- Take out the liver and let it sit at room temperature for five minutes; set the wine aside for later.
- Wrap it tightly and entirely in two levels of gauze to form a log-like form.
- Cover the bottom of a casserole dish with a lid with a layer of 'gros sel', lay your liver on top and cover it entirely with salt. (You want it to disappear altogether under the salt.) Put the lid on and put it back in the fridge for another 24 hours.
- Take it out, remove the gauze, rince it well with the white wine you set aside earlier to remove all the salt.
It is now cooked or rather cured. You may keep it in the refrigerator for several days before serving it on lightly toasted pain de campagne.
Photo credit: Nikodem Nijaki (foie gras).
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