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Foie gras is a delicacy made of the fattened liver of geese or ducks. The technique of fattening these animals through gavage (or force-feeding) is very old. Originally its purpose was a higher slaughter weight in geese and ducks. The side-effect was a tasty fattening of the liver, which was much appreciated from the start.

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History of Foie gras

Around 2500 BC ancient Egyptians realized that migratory birds are voracious eaters because they need to store energy for their long flights. These feeding habits may be used to advantage to achieve higher slaughter weights in geese and ducks. Animals may be overfed by force-feeding with a feeding tube or funnel. The French term gavage means to gorge.

Gavage is mostly done with grain. The old Romans discovered that a finer taste is achieved, if the animals are also fed with figs, dates, soaked white bread and special barley flakes.

Strasbourg was the most important city for the production of foie gras during the 18th century. The by far largest producer today is still France, but foie gras is also produced in other countries like Hungary, Israel, Bulgaria, China, Canada and the USA. In some countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland gavage is prohibited by law and foie gras may not be produced.

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Trimming and preparation of Foie gras

Fresh foie gras has to be inspected for green spots before it is prepared. They consist of bile from the gall bladder and have to be trimmed off because their taste is unpleasant and bitter.

The liver should be warmed to room temperature (about 20°C) under a damp cloth before it is trimmed. After trimming it should be cooled again as fast as possible. A bowl standing in ice water is good for this purpose. Put the liver parts in this dish immediately after trimming. Remove fat and tendons at the side of the gall bladder and inside the liver as well as the thin skin that covers it. Now carefully separate both liver lobes with your hands.

To remove the small veins from the liver, both lobes have to be opened up. Using your thumbs, carefully break the liver open from the inside. It should not be torn apart though. Expose the veins by following the branching carefully. The veins should then be easily removed. The trimmed liver may be put back together and brought to its original shape. It is now ready for the desired preparation.

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Quality control when purchasing Foie gras

Fattened liver for foie gras is not cheap, no matter if it is duck or goose liver. It is important to buy good quality livers. They are sensitive to light and air. If a liver is cut and shows a grey border of about 0.5 mm, it may be too old or of lesser quality.

Quality of the liver is also dependent on the season. The best livers are available in winter. Winter livers are best suited for the preparation of parfaits or terrines. In summer livers are smaller and contain less fat. There are also more veins in summer livers. They are best suited for frying. Toss liver slices in flour and fry both sides in a very hot frying pan without fat for a few seconds only. Fried foie gras may for example be served on green salads.

Foie gras is usually packed in a vacuum for easier transport. The removal of air during this packaging method may bring rests of bile to the veins and spread them in the liver. More complicated but gentler for the liver is the wrapping in parchment paper and transport in Styrofoam boxes filled with ice.

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Foie gras controversy

Some European countries, such as Germany, Austria, Finland and Poland, regard gavage as animal cruelty and have laws prohibiting it. The national assembly of France has declared foie gras a national and gastronomical cultural heritage in 2005. An addition to the French agricultural laws now excludes foie gras from the animal protection laws.

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