Friday, January 4, 2013

The History of Foie Gras

The History of foie gras, if you can believe it, and you probably can, is about as old and intriguing as that of caviar.

Sliced Foie Gras

The difference, however, comes with the fact that foie gras is a far more controversial delicacy than caviar.  It is something you either love or hate - and not just because of taste and texture, but because of animal right's groups citing animal cruelty. The common French method of gavage (the force-feeding of ducks to fatten their livers) has galvanized activists in very recent history to the point of getting foie gras sales banned in Chicago in 2006. Foie gras, however, is not a delicacy which fans could give up lightly, so it only took two years, and some very passionate chefs, for that ban to be repealed.  Even the mayor of Chicago at the time, Richard Daley, thought the ban was 'the silliest law' ever passed by the city council. That being said, there is a current ban in California on the sale of any foie gras made using the force-feeding method, and many other such laws around the world. Love it or hate it, it has been around for a long, long time, and I highly doubt it's going anywhere anytime soon. So let's dig in to the rich history of this very rich delicacy.

eat it up

The first evidence of foie gras' existence dates back 45 centuries - yes, centuries - to ancient Egypt. In fact, foie gras is found in almost every major culture of the ancient world. Whether or not the Egyptians actually knew how to make foie gras may forever be a mystery, but there exist hieroglyphs depicting Egyptians force-feeding geese to fatten them.  It is said that Egyptians had noticed how geese would gorge themselves before their winter migrations, thus giving Egyptians the idea. One such depiction, dating from as far back as 2500 BC, shows many people force-feeding food pellets to numerous geese. This bas relief was found in the necropolis of Saqqara, just like the one I previously discussed in my history on caviar. Those Egyptians knew a delicacy when they stumbled across one!

Geese being force-fed. From the burial ground at Saqqara. 
According to The Wall Street Journal the first example of foie gras actually being written occurred much later, in the 2nd century BC (probably sometime in the mid-100's BC) by Julius Pollux, a professor. Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, also wrote, in his book 'On Farming', about the force-feeding of Geese. (Is it really fair that the French are the ones always getting the bad rap over this?)

Apparently back in the day, Romans used Jewish slaves to do their dirty work and force-feed their geese. It served the Jewish people well, however, as they would take the practice back to their own kingdom in Palestine.

feed me!

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote about how his contemporary, Marcus Apicus, would feed figs to wild geese to fatten their livers: "Apicius made the discovery, that we may employ the ... artificial method of increasing the size of the liver of ... the goose; it consists in cramming them with dried figs, and when they are fat enough, they are drenched with wine mixed with honey, and immediately killed." - Pliny the Elder from his book 'Natural History.'

What makes this especially interesting is the Latin word for liver, ficatum, literally means 'fig-stuffed.'  The Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian and Italian words for liver (higato, figato, foie, ficat, and fegato respectively) all stem from the Latin word ficatum

All Fig-ured out!

Pliny also pointed out that they would soak goose liver in milk and honey, so as to fatten it further.  He proclaimed the governor of Syria, from the 1st century BC, invented this practice.

Most sources I've found lead me to believe the Jews kept the practice of making foie gras alive throughout the Middle Ages, while everywhere else in Europe it was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire.  Due to dietary restrictions, foie gras was used in place of butter and lard for cooking in the Jewish community.

Slowly, over the course of centuries, foie gras popped back up - and this time in France. You see, the Jewish people were a migratory bunch, not unlike the geese they force-fed, and by ~1100 AD they'd made their way into the southeast region of France. When you think of force-feeding geese, you might cringe and say it's poor treatment of animals... The way the Jewish people did it back in the 12th century was truly sadistic. They used to blind the animals and nail their feet to the ground, making it easier to feed them. Ouch!  Who wants to talk about animal cruelty now?

Bring It!

It took some time for foie gras to catch on in Europe, but by the 1500's this delectable treat had found its place among the French courts of Kings Louis XV and XVI. No longer fed figs, geese were then being force-fed corn, a new arrival brought back by Christopher Columbus from the Americas. Aristocrats would serve foie gras at their lavish banquets, and it wasn't long before the middle class of France had a desire for the dish. It is said that around this same time, a revived interest in cookbooks in France brought the concept of foie gras to the middle class.

It wasn't until the 1700's, however, that foie gras really exploded on the scene in France, thanks to an innovative young chef named Jean-Pierre Clause.  He had moved to Strasbourg, in the region of Alsace, to work with his brother as a chef for a Marquis there. (Strasbourg, by the way, is on the very Eastern side of France, where the Jewish people had entered France hundreds of years before.)  He took the peasant dish of foie gras pate and served it to the Marquis, who was so taken with the dish, he ordered it sent to the king himself at Versailles.  King Louis XVI loved foie gras pate so much, he gave the Marquis land for this gift of pate, and offered the pate from Strasbourg to his allies all over Europe.  Again, a peasant food was seen as a food fit for kings.

Is that foie gras in your hand, or are you just happy to see me?  King Louis XVI
An interesting note on how the bourgeois of France, and later on, the rest of the world, came to enjoy foie gras in restaurants - or Western style restaurants as a whole, dates back to the French Revolution.  Prior to actual restaurants, the main places to eat were roadside taverns or inns, where food was served buffet style, and was typically exceptionally hearty.  One could also get snacks at food carts. (Of course, there are many exceptions, not the least of which is evidence of restaurants in the ancient world. Then again, how long did it take for plumbing to make a comeback?)

By 1789, many French could hardly afford bread due to taxation by the wealthy (sound kinda familiar, America?), and eventually this led to the rioting that would bring about the French Revolution.  Many French nobles and aristocrats fled to the countryside, leaving behind massive wine cellars, as well as their chefs and cooking staffs.

French Revolution

During the time of the French Revolution, there were upwards of 50 restaurants in Paris, though most still catered to the French elite. While aristocrats were busy getting their heads chopped off, others that could afford such and were under the radar of the revolutionaries were enjoying light fair and delicacies in these newly formed restaurants.

In the early 1800's, when Napoleon took over the country, he decided that not only the rich, but all of France should be allowed to dine in restaurants, calling it "the freedom of pleasure." Soon, even people who could not afford to do so were dining out; stealing silverware had also become commonplace.

Another interesting occurrence in the 1800's, specifically for me at the moment, was the introduction of foie gras to the United States.  Are you thinking it was brought in through New York?  Boston, perhaps? Nay!  Foie gras first showed up on the scene here thanks to German immigrants who filtered into America, settling in none other than Watertown, Wisconsin, which soon became known as the unofficial capital of foie gras in the US!

That being said, foie gras remained on the tables of German, Jewish, and French immigrants. It wasn't until high end restaurants, like the renowned Lutèce in Manhattan which opened in 1961, started putting it on their menus that the high rollers of NYC got their fangs in foie gras.

In the 1960's, foie gras was imported, most often in cans, to many high-end restaurants in America. In the 1980's, a French transplant named Ariane Daguin, reared by a gourmand chef father, founded D'Artagnan in Newark, NJ.  Her company was the first to specialize in fine game and locally-produced foie gras in the US.  She sold to Lutèce, of course, and expanded her business to include a wide range of gourmet foods from the beloved foie gras, to truffles, dried meats, caviar, etc. She is noted by many high-end chefs as being the most influential figure in bringing fresh game and foie gras to restaurants in America.

Today, there are many foie gras makers in the US, as well as companies who export to us. You can even find options, if you're lucky, in some grocery stores. Below is a photo of one such company's product. Founded in the 1800's in France, Rougie has outposts in other countries, including Canada. This was found in a grocery store in Queens, NY.

Torchon - whole foie gras liver

Of course, there are many ways of serving foie gras. You can serve it (the duck or goose variety) as a lobe, seared on a grill, which my husband adores and which an acquaintance from Chicago taught me years ago, or as a terrine, a torchon, as a sort of tart, or, as my personal favorite, a pate!

foie gras pate
To my surprise, one of the grocery stores here in Sheboygan, Wisconsin - Festival Foods - sells two types of pate - one being a foie gras variety.  Beggars can't be choosers!

our foie gras plate
So if you like foie gras, feel free to share with us your own experiences, or even recipes!  Ever had foie gras as a sort of soup shot?  It's actually quite good, and considering how rich this stuff is, probably not a bad way to have it. ;)

A final note that seems interesting to me - the last meal on the Titanic before it crashed in 1912 included a foie gras cassoulet - where the foie gras was marinated in madeira wine, and layered with truffles.  For a last meal, one could do worse!

Thanks for reading!

As they'd say in Latin, Vale! (for now)


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