I practically grew up on foie gras. My grandparents had a small farm outside of Gourdon in Southwestern France; they raised ducks, chickens and rabbits; grew corn, potatoes, beets and other crops to feed the animals; harvested walnuts, chestnuts and the most wonderful peaches from trees that grew in the vineyards (yes, they made their own wine, too). Grandma used to prepare the best terrines and pâtés of foie gras. Since I would always spend my vacations at the farm, I got to eat a lot of foie gras. We did not consider it a luxury; in fact, my grandparents were fairly poor but it was more economical for them to open a jar of home-made, preserved foie gras than to buy steak from the butcher. For me, eating foie gras was just part of spending time "at the farm", like hunting for wild mushrooms (lots of fun) and harvesting potatoes (much less fun).
The French Scene.Many changes have occurred in French foie gras production over the last thirty years. What used to be a small-scale, farm-based, regional activity has become fairly big business. Duck production has taken over goose production to the point where domestic supply of goose foie gras does not even begin to cover the demand: as a result, the vast majority of goose livers processed in France are actually imported from Hungary and Israel. New producing regions have emerged. Traditionally, ducks and geese were raised for foie gras in regions that also produced corn, such as the Southwest and Alsace. Supermarket chains put pressure on the producers to offer foie gras at lower prices and in larger quantities while promoting the product year-around: many new duck farms were set up in Vendée and Brittany to increase overall production and to capitalize on an eager pool of young people who wanted to stay and work in their own region. Indeed, more French people are eating more foie gras more often than ever but I feel that the overall quality of the product has gone down. Let's face it: you cannot hurry up nature. Producing good livers remains a costly, labor-intensive activity: using hormones to speed up the bird's growth and inoculations to prevent illnesses (that are more prevalent when the ducks are raised in large flocks) does not have a positive effect on the quality of foie gras. Don't get me wrong: you can still find a lot of excellent foie gras in France but, more than ever, it is important to know -and trust- your supplier. The one thing that has not changed is that the French overwhelmingly prefer their foie gras in a terrine or pâté form: 80% of the foie gras consumed in France is served cold.
The American Scene. When I first came to the US over twenty years ago, I proudly carried a can of Grandma's foie gras in my suitcase to give to the family who was hosting me. It was their first exposure to foie gras. Back then, America was just discovering croissants, and food stores started to realize that not all cheeses came in white or yellow bricks… But foie gras had no cultural connection to this country and only a few brave souls could imagine that the market would grow beyond "minuscule". American chefs embraced foie gras and -truth be told- they made it their own: since consumers were also discovering foie gras and had no points of reference and no expectations beyond getting a good meal, chefs were free to "play" with the product and to prepare it in new creative ways, unencumbered by the weight of French traditions. As a result, the market for foie gras in the US has grown a lot but in completely different directions from what occurred in France. Until 1984, there was no domestic production of foie gras in the US and chefs here had no choice but to use imported cooked foie gras because USDA regulations did not allow European producers to ship raw livers. Commonwealth (based on the East Coast and later absorbed by Hudson Valley Foie Gras) was the first US producer of raw foie gras; Sonoma Foie Gras followed two years later on the West Coast. The availability of fresh raw foie gras triggered a revolution in the kitchens as chefs could not only make their own terrines but also sauté foie gras and serve it warm with apples or shallots, for example (a glamorized version of liver and onions). That particular mode of preparation really inspired American chefs since they could use a basic recipe -searing slices of foie gras in a frying pan- and give it a personal, unusual twist by varying the surrounding elements (sauce, spices, wine, fruits, vegetables) according to season and inspiration. In a total reversal to what happens in France, 80 % of the foie gras consumed in the US is served hot. Another huge difference is that most French consumers do not purchase raw foie gras because they won't bother making their own terrine; on the other hand, more and more Americans look for raw foie gras to sear it at home and duplicate the fantastic dish they enjoyed in a restaurant. If you are reading this article, chances are that you are curious about how to use foie gras, so allow me to share a few tips with you.
Duck or Goose? This is really a rhetorical question since there is no domestic production of geese for foie gras. Since the end of 1998, the USDA has allowed the importation of raw goose foie gras from France and a few French producers have been shipping flash-frozen goose livers to the US. Private consumers have a difficult time getting a hold of them because the distribution mainly targets upscale restaurants that use it for goose liver terrines. Goose liver is just as desirable as duck liver if you want to make a terrine. It is mostly a matter of personal taste: goose liver has a more delicate flavor, duck liver is a little more rustic. For hot preparations (searing), goose liver is not a very good choice because it renders a lot more fat than duck liver.
What about Grades? Foie gras is traditionally classified in three grades that reflect the quality of the liver based on various criteria. In France, government standards have been set so that consumers know what to expect of any graded foie gras, regardless of its provenance. There are no such standards in the US but, then again, there are not that many producers… The factors that come into play are weight, shape, texture and overall appearance. For grading purposes, each liver is compared to a "perfect standard". Livers that are too big, too small, too soft or too hard will either render more fat or will not have as silky a texture; those that show bruises or blemishes are less desirable because the presentation will suffer, especially if the foie gras is used in a terrine. Grade A is the top grade: smooth and buttery, the duck liver has no imperfections and weighs about 1.25 lb. Grade B livers are usually softer, darker and show a few bruises. Grade C livers are small and soft, an indication that the fat content is too low and that the texture will be meatier. An experienced farmer can feel the liver when the duck is alive and have a good idea about its "readiness". Of course, nature is never quite predictable… Grade A will always give good results, regardless of preparation. Supply of Grade B is spotty and the cost difference is not very significant. Grade C livers are definitely cheaper, but you would only use them for sauces or stuffing. Because we want to be sure that you will always be thrilled with your foie gras purchase, Joie de Vivre only offers Grade A foie gras.
Can Foie Gras be Frozen? It is always better to use a fresh foie gras, but it is better to freeze it than to throw away good food! As you probably know, the freezing/defrosting process results in a rupture of the cell walls, and it is more noticeable in foods with a high moisture content: bread freezes fairly well, strawberries will be completely mushy, meat falls somewhere in between. There will be some textural loss in a frozen/defrosted foie gras. If the intent is to use it in a high heat preparation, it is not much of a problem: searing the slices will firm them up a bit. But I do not recommend using a frozen/defrosted liver to make a terrine: the texture will be grainy and the liver will have a tendency to crumble when you slice it.
To Flour or not to Flour? As you scan recipes for sautéed foie gras, you will probably notice that some instruct you to dredge the slices of foie gras in flour before searing it, while others don't. You may ask yourself: what difference does it make? Not much. The idea behind flouring foie gras before searing it is that it will make a nice crusty exterior that will contrast with the soft, silky internal texture. That contrast is indeed desirable but I feel the most critical thing you can do (and need to do) to achieve this result is to sear your slices very quickly over high heat. The one situation where I think the flouring step is helpful is when the recipe calls for mixing the flour with a bunch of different spices: that way, you achieve a more even distribution of the seasonings on all faces of the foie gras.
White or Red? Sweet or Dry? Ahh, the wine question. Of course, it has to be addressed! Let me just say that I don't consider myself a wine expert: I enjoy good food and, being French, drinking wine with my meal is an important part of the experience. I'll just offer my personal opinion. An exceptional dish deserves an exceptional wine and the classic foie gras-Sauternes pairing is nothing short of incredible. My only problem is that I find it difficult to move on to a second-course wine when Sauternes is served first. So, if foie gras is part of a buffet, I stick to Champagne. As a first course, I am more likely to pair my foie gras appetizer with a late-harvest Gewürtztraminer or Riesling, especially if the recipe involves pears or apples. Sometimes a dry white such as a Côtes de Beaune or a Graves may well be a better choice. But there is not hard rule: I have prepared sautéed foie gras with a red fruit compote on the side, served it with a young Bordeaux and I felt it worked really well (no, color coordination was not the main factor). When I am back home, we tend to pair our duck foie gras with a Cahors or a Médoc. Foie gras is a very versatile food; when deciding which wine to serve with foie gras, I think you should take into account the other ingredients and spices that compose the dish, and also what comes next.
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