Enjoying Foie Gras
Some of you know what foie gras is, others maybe not.
Since it is an integral part of culinary festivities in France, especially those around Christmas and New Years, a “how-to” is in order.
What Is It?
To oversimplify, foie gras is goose liver. Doesn’t sound exciting put this way, n’est-ce pas? “So what’s all the hoopla about?” you ask. Just like caviar is really fish eggs, foie gras has to be something to start with.
Geese are pigs. Well, not really, but they sure love to overeat, especially tasty grain products. So when they get fat, overly so, their livers over-develop.
The same is true of ducks.
So, one day hundreds of years ago in a faraway province of southern France, some farmer let his geese loose and over-indulge. He had a “Eureka!” moment when he discovered that their overly enlarged livers were actually overly tasty. He prepared a fabulous paté, spread it on a warm crusty piece of bread and “voilà!” a new tradition and a gazillion euro food industry was born.
Today, entire farms of fowl are overfed to the great pleasure of the fowl although there have been some animal protection activists who insist that over feeding geese and ducks is torture. (Try telling that to the guys who invented hamburgers or potato chips!)
Still, I love animals too and try to do my hypocritical best and not watch when documentaries about the treatment of animals on their way to my plate come on TV. Nor do I visit the slaughterhouse. You also might have read about my trip to the fowl farm to purchase a turkey on the hoof for my last Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve owned up to my squeamishness about killing my dinner. Still, because all of the above are delicious, I personify carnivorous hypocrisy of the meanest sort.
Finding Foie Gras in France
During a stay in France you’ll notice it on menus of the finest restaurants and if you stay with some people who really like you, you might find some in a special meal.
However, it is very costly and not part of everyday consumption. Foie gras is a party food, and not a beer drinking Super Bowl type party.
Most often it is served in a slice on a plate alongside a variety of decorative tasty accompaniments. In paté form it comes in a wide variety of qualities each more expensive than the last.
Whole foie gras is the most expensive. It is thick and not creamy. It’s kind of chunky because it’s solid liver, cooked to perfection.
You know you’ve got quality if it crumbles when you cut a sliver to put onto your warm toasted “brioche”. You cannot spread it like regular goose liver paste or liverwurst from the USA. If you can then it is of lesser quality and made with the debris of leftovers from higher quality cuts, rather like hamburger was originally made from lesser cuts of beef all ground up into smithereens, so as to be unidentifiable. Kind of like what butchers use to make sausage with.
Thick and crumbly is best.
And the Grease?
You might notice a yellow layer of creamy stuff along the rim of your foie gras slice. This is pure unadulterated grease. People in the southwest provinces of France use this goose or duck grease to cook with.
I’m obliged to tell you while you’re screaming about your cholesterol levels rising through the roof if you look at this grease, much less fry sliced potatoes in it, you’ve never tasted better fried potatoes anywhere than those cooked in a teaspoon of duck grease. Nor do the happy campers who cook like this and have done so for generations necessarily have more clogged arteries than any of us burger and chip eating Americans. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know for sure, but the truth is statistical, and I did not make it up. Maybe it’s the drinking of a glass of red wine every evening with their grease accompanied potatoes, the walking to the market to buy their bread, the notable absence of drive through automated car washes or the three square meals a day thing.
Who knows? Not me, although I adhere to the occasional duck leg stewed in its fat, and partook of this on a regular basis while on a diet recently when I dropped 25 pounds. Ah! Life in France! Even when you diet you can drink red wine and eat slow roasted duck in grease. Ok, so I’m off on a tangent again…..
The Condiments to Accompany It
To explain a bit about the other stuff on your plate when you’re served this slice of tasty foie...
The condiments arranged along the perimeters of the plate vary from place to place but I like to put a dab of fig jam, a dab of sliced onions slow simmered in butter until they start to gel, a pinch of rock salt and a pinch of coarsely ground black pepper.
Another option for the sweet stuff is a dab of stewed dried cranberries simmered in butter with a slice or two of granny smith apple.
This starter should be served with a sweet white wine, and by sweet I mean a yellow white wine not one whose robe is clear and hardly colored. I could say: yellow wine.
One that’s sweet and slightly syrupy. In France, it’s a Sauternes, or Montbazillac or a yellowish champagne such as a Demoiselle or a Tsarine.
Dry white wine doesn’t work in this case, nor does brut champagne.
To indulge in a sequence of taste explosions worthy of the 15€-25€ starter in front of you, begin by breaking off a piece of brioche. This, by the way, is the sweet bread Marie Antoinette suggested the peasants eat when they had run out of bread, in her silly yet infamous rejoinder “let them eat cake!” She didn’t say cake or “gateau”. She said “brioche”. Anyway, she did have the good sense not to add “and they should have some foie gras with that!” thus keeping her head attached for a few extra years.
Back to the technique...
Slice off a bit of foie gras. Balance it carefully on your brioche and add a drip or two of your sweet sauce and a minute pinch of rock salt. Pop it in your mouth and chew, swallow and sip your wine. Smile as your mouth enjoys a million taste buds doing the happy dance all over your tongue.
For the next bite do the opposite, dribble some onions and a pinch of pepper, then alternate sweet with onions with salt or pepper until you run out of everything.
Do not over-do the sauces with each bite, just a hint each time, because the foie gras has a very distinctive flavour that should be complimented, not overpowered by the condiments.
Use the rest of your bread to clean up any left over sauce, and drink up your wine because this type of wine doesn’t go well with much anything else except dessert. Since this is a starter, you’ll have something else yummy on the way, signalling that a wine change is imminent. Thank goodness for the half bottle options available in most restaurants.
Here's a Variation
A variation on the paté version of foie gras is the foie gras cutlet. This is a main dish and completely different from the starter I described above.
The cutlet is dipped is confectioners sugar then pan fried with zero fat. No butter, oil or anything: just a really hot non-stick frying pan. It is basically seared for one minute on each side then served hot. Sometimes this might be served with a mousseline of potatoes and truffles.
It tastes different from the starter version, and the texture is much softer and less consistent.
Delicious nonetheless, it is slightly more difficult for the average novice to adopt.
Enjoy the Party
Hopefully, if you have the opportunity to indulge in this specialty so dear to the hearts of the French of every age group, you’ll be better prepared to have a taste fest to be savoured.
Enjoy the party!