I’VE always been a bit of a rebel, but I also understand that one must have a healthy respect for the ever-changing norms of society. Ethical eating is a relatively new concept that has questioned the morality of consuming some of our favorite foods.
I can forgo shark’s fin and won’t terribly miss bird’s nest soup, but asking me to give up foie gras severely tests my moral fiber. Foie gras, duck or goose liver, may be controversial in the modern world but it has long been one of the gourmet world’s greatest treats.
Nearly 5,000 years ago a tomb in the Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara was lovingly adorned with paintings and carvings of geese being force-fed. The practice was quite widespread in ancient Egypt as the meat and innards of geese were particularly valued by the monarchy and elite.
The Phoenicians and Greeks learned from the Egyptians and in turn taught the Romans. The great Roman philosopher and gastronomique-vino lover Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote extensively on force-fed geese and their savory livers. He observed that geese force-fed with figs were the most delicious and prized and in fact the Roman word for figs, “ficatum,” became the root word for liver in modern European languages.
Most etymologists concur that foie in French, fegato in Italian and higado in Spanish are all derived from the Roman ficatum.
The Middle Ages are also sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages and this seems quite befitting as the art of goose liver mostly disappeared from the European diet, only kept alive by small communities of Jews.
The Ashkenazi Jews who spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire gradually transferred their knowledge to other communities and foie gras had its own renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, was so enamored with foie gras that he served it at practically every state dinner.
China is becoming a more important producer of goose liver and the quality of domestic foie gras has certainly improved. Hungary, Spain, the United States and other countries are also producers of quality goose liver but the unquestioned home of foie gras is France, which accounts for about 75 percent of global production.
The French take their foie gras very seriously and have enacted a strict quality control and grading system. At the top in terms of quality and price is foie gras entire that comprises one or both of the whole liver lobes, which may be fresh, semi-cooked or cooked.
The next grade is 100 percent reassembled foie gras from pieces of the liver followed by the fully cooked, molded bloc de foie gras composed of 98 percent foie gras. Parfait de foie gras must contain 75 percent liver while pate de foie gras or mousse de foie gras must be at least half duck or goose liver.
In France, 96 percent of foie gras production is duck while only 4 percent is goose. The process of making goose liver is more time-consuming, difficult and expensive.
However, purists insist that goose foie gras is less gamy, richer, more smooth and refined than that of duck. Quite frankly, I love both.
Five millenniums ago the Egyptians were already well aware of the proclivity of migratory birds to gain weight in preparation for their epic journeys.
In nature these birds would often double their weight by increasing their body fat, especially the fat around the liver. Force-feeding today may increase the dimensions of the liver of a duck or goose to 6 to 10 times the normal size.
The real controversy is how the force-feeding is done. In France the final feeding process is called gavage, in which the fowl are force-fed through a tube inserted in their esophagus. Duck are force-fed twice a day for 12-15 days while geese are fed up to 4 times a day for 15-18 days.
Critics claim this process is both painful and inhumane. Many countries have banned the practice of force-feeding and some places like California have even outlawed the sale of foie gras. Thankfully alternatives do exist.
Two years ago I visited a foie gras production facility in Castilla y Leon in northern Spain where ducks and geese are fattened by introduction of high-fat feed in a free range environment. The results, while not as sublimely rich and savory as traditional gavage method foie gras, were the nonetheless very delicious.
By law, in France only force-fed fowl using the gavage method may be called foie gras. However, naturally fattened duck and goose liver under the names of fatty goose, ethical foie gras and humane foie gras are increasingly available.
Enjoying foie gras with a suitable wine is one of the gourmet world’s most sublime experiences. Traditionally, sweet wines were the preferred partners as the sweetness of the wine beautifully complements the richness of the liver and the smooth textures of the wine and liver both work in unison.
In France this usually meant Sauternes, the famous sweet white wine from southern Bordeaux.
Made from mostly Semillon — but also Sauvignon Blanc and occasionally Muscadelle grapes that have been infected with the beneficial Botrytis Cinerea mold — these are among the greatest sweet wines in the world.
They have wonderfully concentrated sweet fruit and honey flavors balanced by fresh acidity. These qualities make them ideal partners to foie gras.
Traditionalists in Spain would, of course, opt for a Spanish sweet wine like a fine old Pedro Ximenez Sherry, while those in Portugal and perhaps the UK might well choose a Port when enjoying foie gras.
Other fine partners would be a Tuscan Vin Santo or Muscat de Beaumes de Venice from the southern Rhone.
In all the cases the principle is the same: Sweetness mirrors the sumptuousness of the foie gras, the textures are similarly smooth while the acidic kick and alcohol in the finish of the wine facilitates digestion of the fatty liver.
As long as the sweet wine you choose is balanced and high-quality you can’t go wrong serving it with foie gras.
Give me a glass of distinctive sweet wine with foie gras and I’m a happy man, however, there’s a new school of food and wine lovers who feel this classic pairing is passé.
These new school proponents prefer matching contrasts rather than similarities when pairing wine with foie gras. Specifically, they advocate dry wines with healthy doses of acidity or digestive tannins to offset the rich and fatty qualities of duck and goose liver. Their argument has merit.
Some inspired dry wine pairings with foie gras include Champagne or sparkling wines, dry and fruity white wines like unoaked Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Albarinos or medium- to full-body red wines that combine good fruit, freshness and soft tannins, such as New Zealand and Oregon Pinot Noirs or Southern Rhone reds.
All the aforementioned wines have the fruitiness and flavor intensity to match the richness of the duck or goose liver and also the acidity and, in the case of the reds, the tannins to cleanse the palate.
I recommend sparkling and dry whites with cold or chilled foie gras preparations and red wines with seared or hot duck and goose liver dishes.
If you can’t decide between the old and new schools then I suggest trying something in the middle like an Italian Amarone.
The best examples of this blockbuster red wine made from sun-dried grapes have the ample, almost sweet fruitiness and velvety smooth tannins that will lovingly embellish your foie gras.
ABU’s duck foie gras pate with red wine pear sauce (for 2-3 people)
Duck foie gras, 50g
Diced pear, 50g
Red wine, 30 oz
Grape syrup, 1/2 oz
Pinch of pepper and sea salt
Mixed green leaf salad
• Dice pear.
• Heat the frying pan and melt the butter.
• Heat the pear in the red wine with grape syrup for about 10 minutes.
• Deglaze the pear with butter.
• Heat frying pan to very hot and quickly pan-sear duck foie gras for 10 seconds.
• Turn the foie gras over and remove from heat.
• Put foie gras in the oven and cook for 3 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius.
• Sprinkle sea salt and pepper on the foie gras.
• Toss salad with olive oil, balsamico, salt and pepper.
• Put the foie gras onto a slightly heated plate and dress with mixed salad.
• Serve the pear sauce on the foie gras. Now it’s ready to serve.
Foie gras dishes at hotels
Pan-fired foie gras in red wine sauce with garlic bread
Freshly selected by Executive Chef Tse Yuen Man, the goose liver is first seared in a hot, dry pan for 30 seconds per side. Meanwhile, Tse pan-fries the bread until it turns brown each side. When ready, the goose liver is served on the garlic bread and added a dash of chef’s secret red wine sauce.
Price: 200 yuan+15%
Venue: Miyabi Japanese Restaurant & Sky Bar, 37/F, Sheraton Shanghai Hongkou Hotel, 59 Siping Rd
Seared foie gras with summer fruits salsa, cinnamon, pain perdu and apricot Xeres foam
Price: 188 yuan+15%
Foie gras au torchon with port jelly, cherry coulis, elderflower syrup and rosemary brioche
Price: 168 yuan+15%
Venue: Sir Elly’s, 13/F, The Peninsula Shanghai, 32 Zhongshan Rd E1
Oxtail beef soup & pumpkins foie gras ravioli
Price: 86 yuan+15%
Venue: Allure French Cuisine, Lobby Level, Le Royal Méridien Shanghai, 789 Nanjing Rd E.