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Foie Gras - History

From Ancient Egypt to Gaul. Foie gras has a long-standing tradition in the history of gastronomy. Foie gras "pâté" only really came into its own in the 18th century, but the technique of force-feeding poultry (gavage) was used by the ancient Egyptians at the time of the Pharaohs, as can be seen on an old fresco discovered at Sakkarah which dates back to 2500 B.C and depicts six Egyptians stuffing geese.

The word itself is more recent as it comes from the Latin. "Foie", like "fegato" in Italian, is a deformation of the Latin term "jecur figatum", meaning "liver stuffed with figs", because the Romans force-fed their geese with a mixture of crushed dried figs, milk and honey (of course, corn was at the time still unknown in Europe).

Geese were fed on this mixture to fatten them up after their long journey from Gaul to Rome. Some things don't change: the Gauls, the ancestors of the modern-day French, were already at that time specialists in breeding geese, though the principal areas of production were Boulogne and Calais.

A dainty dish for a King. This era was followed by a long period of "dark ages" when foie gras disappeared from the historical records. Corn, coming from Columbia by way of Spain was introduced in France in the 16th century but it is not until the late 1700s that foie gras really began to make its mark as an elaborate dish. The first "pâtés" recipe was invented in 1769 by an innkeeper in Lot-et-Garonne, followed by Courtois, a cake-maker from Périgueux.

But the first person to really set the trend was the chef of the Maréchal de Contades, governor of Alsace. In 1789 in Strasbourg, the Maréchal urged Jean-Pierre Clause to invent a new dish. Clause created the "pâté de Contades", a whole foie baked in a pastry crust. Almost overnight, foie gras became a "royal" dish. The maréchal de Contades sent one of the pâtés to King Louis XVI, who was most enthusiastic. So much so, in fact, that he sent the chef 20 pistols and gave the Maréchal an estate in Picardie to express his gratitude. The career of "foie gras" as a special dish had certainly gotten off to a favorable start…

There was, however, a finishing touch missing from Clause's recipe for he had overlooked including truffles as an ingredient; it was a chef by the name of Doyen who thought of adding truffles to the "pâté de Contades". In fact, the French revolution deserves some credit for bringing about this culinary event, for it was because of the uprisings that Doyen had fled his native Périgord —the truffle-producing region of France— for the safety of Strasbourg.

Choosing canned foie gras. Labeling requirements on all French foie gras was simplified in 1988 to bring consistency and eliminate confusion. If the word "gras" is listed on the label, then the product is only made with liver, either goose or duck liver; it indicates that the product is classified as top grade and may be called Foie Gras Entier (whole foie gras), Foie gras, or Bloc de Foie gras. The second grade may be called Parfait, Purée, Galantine, Pâté, Mousse of goose or duck (or goose) liver. The percentage of foie gras, truffles, Port, Armagnac, or Cognac contained in the product must always appear on the label in the ingredient list if mentioned in the sales denomination. The color of the foie gras may be yellow, beige or pink (depending chiefly on the diet of the bird) but what really matters is the texture: it should be smooth like porcelain.

Serving foie gras. Although it is most often served as a hors d'oeuvre, foie gras is also a choice ingredient of classic cuisine such as in Tournedos Rossini or Chicken Souvaroff. The secret of serving foie gras is to chill it (but never put it the freezer). Open both ends of the chilled tin and use one cover to push out the foie gras intact. Dip the knife in hot water before slicing. Serve foie gras on thin, thin toast, with a crusty baguette or with country French bread. Which wines should be served with foie gras? The classic pairing calls for a chilled French Sauternes but late-harvest wines (Gewürtztraminer or Riesling) offer nice, more affordable options. A light red Bordeaux with duck foie gras or a glass of Port with goose foie gras will highlight their respective characteristics. And, of course, Champagne is always in good taste.