Foie gras – doesn’t that sound much nicer than “fatty liver?” But that’s exactly what this controversial French delicacy is: Fatty duck or goose liver. The controversy has to do with how the liver is fattened. The farmer puts a tube down the bird’s throat and force-feeds him, a technique known as gavage.
France produces about 80% of the world’s foie gras and the French gobble up most of that themselves. But they can’t take credit (or blame) for coming up with the idea of force-feeding animals to fatten their liver. People have been doing this for thousands of years. It goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptians noticed that before geese (and other waterfowl) flew off on their annual migration, they ate a lot more than normal and got a bit chubby. When someone decided to have a goose dinner before the birds all flew away, they found that the liver was full of extra fat and tasted yummy.
They figured if they could make a goose eat extra amounts at other times, they could have a tasty fat liver whenever they wanted. So the Egyptians started force-feeding geese on a large scale. And they didn’t stop there: They force-fed other animals such as cows and even hyenas.
Greeks and Romans
The practice of forcefully fattening animals passed to the Greeks and then to the Romans. They added more animals to the gavage list: They overfed pigs, dormice, and even snails.
Then someone discovered that they could add extra flavor to the fatty liver by force-feeding the geese with dried figs instead of grain. The fig-stuffed goose would then be given a dose of honeyed wine just before he was killed. This infused the fat liver with a nice, figgy flavor. In fact, the latin word ficatum (which means “figgy”) became the word for liver and the French word foie is derived from that.
When the Roman Empire came to an end, the foie gras tradition seems to have been carried on by European Jews. They used goose fat to cook their meat since butter and lard were forbidden under their dietary laws. Then around the 16th century, Renaissance chefs rediscovered the dainty dish and started buying their fatted goose livers from the Jews.
Later foie gras became associated with the kings of France. The term “foyes gras” began to be used during the reign of Louis XIV, and the next Louis (Louis XV) served it at royal banquets. But it was under Louis XVI that it was proclaimed the “dish of kings.” In 1778 the governor of Alsace served a special foie gras recipe to Louis XVI. He loved it so much he gave the governor a parcel of land in Picardie to show his appreciation. He also gave twenty gold coins to the chef who had prepared it.
After the Revolution (when the last Louis lost his head) regular people could enjoy yummy, fat duck livers and they began to show up on restaurant menus. Today most French people eat foie gras at least a few times a year. It’s mainly served at Christmas and for special occasions.
Animal rights groups have protested the cruelty of gavage for years and a few farmers are starting to use gentler methods. But, cruel or not, fatty duck and goose liver is definitely part of France’s culture. It was recognized as “part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage of France” in 2006 and is likely to be around for quite a while.
*More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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