It is not known who first had the idea of fattening a goose in order to enjoy eating its liver, although it goes back a very long time. The Ancient Egyptians actually practiced this with geese and ducks some 4,500 years ago using toasted and moistened grain. Evidence of this has been found on wall paintings in Saqqara.
The Greeks took up the technique, followed by the Romans, the former using a mixture of crushed wheat, milk, and honey, and the latter using a mixture of grain and figs.
This is the origin of the name iecur ficatum or ficatum, in other words "liver fattened with figs". It would be this term, according to etymologists, that is the origin of the word foie.
This process endured over the centuries, very likely owing to the Hebrews: they had learned the liver-fattening technique in Egypt and handed it down from generation to generation, with their religion imposing on them the need to preserve meat in fat.
In 18th century Central Europe, the Jewish community fattened geese in order to have their fat in winter (milk, cream, and butter were uncommon). As a result, the farming and fattening of geese spread to Alsace. The creation of pâté de foie gras in about 1780 by Jean-Pierre Clause, chef to Marshal Contades, Governor of Strasbourg, combines Jewish tradition with the art of making pâté. Foie gras went on to grace the tables of royalty and the nobility alike.
Geese and ducks would be fed corn after Columbus brought it back from the Americas in the 15th century.
Goose foie gras loses less fat when cooked. This is why it is better for making terrines. It is also more expensive.
The quality of duck foie gras depends on the fat that is rendered when cooked. This quality depends on rearing and gavage conditions.
The quality of foie gras is judged by:
color: goose foie gras is a creamy white tending a little to pink; duck foie gras is light yellow. Whatever the type, it should be very even, and the liver should not be stained with blood.
appearance: a good foie gras is a regular shape, without bruises, and supple to the touch. When pressed with a finger, the imprint remains, giving the impression that it has the consistency of modeling clay.
weight: the ideal weight for a goose liver is in the vicinity of 800 g; that of a duck foie gras is 400–500 g. If it is larger, it will lose a lot of fat; and if it is smaller, there is a chance it will be dry.
Duck foie gras is classified in France by the following criteria:
Qualité Foie extra - A: Mulard duck liver, without bruising, creamy, very beige. Ideal pan-fried or roasted, terrines, raw in shavings, and for foie gras royale. Very little fat is rendered when cooked.
Qualité Foie extra - B : Mulard or Muscovy duck liver, firm, beige. This foie gras has the same uses as that of Category A, but loses a little more fat during cooking.
Première catégorie or première qualité: Mulard or Muscovy duck liver, firm, pinkish beige with some blemishes. It loses much more fat during cooking and is suited to use in forcemeat and bloc de foie gras.
Deuxième qualité: pink liver, sometimes slightly greenish with black spots. This liver should be purged before use in forcemeat or other preparations.
Troisième qualité: this liver is the result of a badly practiced gavage process. This is the lowest quality and use of this product is limited to mousses and other products.
Canard à foie gras du sud-ouest has PGI (protected geographical indication status. This quality label applies to both raw foie gras and ready-to-eat products.
Foie gras des Landes has Label Rouge quality status.
In addition to the raw foie gras, ready-to-eat foie gras, and the foie gras-based preparations described above, foie gras is also available frozen whole or as escalopes, foie gras in a salt crust, au torchon (slow-cooked in a cloth), and stuffed (figs, apricots). One can also find goose or duck necks stuffed with foie gras.
Before cooking foie gras, it must be deveined.
It can then be prepared in several ways: in confit or poached whole, roasted or baked, cut into slices and pan-fried or grilled, as foie gras royale, raw and in fine shavings, and in pastry, forcemeat, and as a foam.
Raw foie gras labeled as chauds (warm) or foies papier ("paper" livers) should be cooked as soon as possible, within 48 hours. They can be kept at 0–4ºC covered with a cloth to prevent oxidation or the formation of an increasingly acidic crust. Care should be taken not to stack them in order to preserve the fine membrane that surrounds them, which contributes to their texture and color during cooking.
Vacuum-packed foie gras can be kept at 0–4ºC and depend on the expiration date established by the manufacturer and printed on the packaging.
All the other forms of foie gras have an expiration date set by the producer or manufacturer and marked on the label, together with the storage conditions.
As farming and gavage are continuous activities, raw duck foie gras is available all year. However, the best time is October through late January. Outside of this time, goose foie gras is hard to find.
All the other forms of foie gras are also available throughout the year.
France is the leading producer of foie gras, far ahead of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel, Spain, the United States, Canada, China, and Belgium.
The main French producing regions are Aquitaine (including the Landes), Midi Pyrénées (including the Gers), Brittany, Pays de Loire, and Alsace.
Duck foie gras makes up 85% of French output, goose foie gras accounting for 5%.