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Foie gras is the liver of the duck or goose that has been fattened by means of force-feeding the animal. Though it is thought to be French in origin, and the name is certainly French, the process of overfeeding water birds to produce a fatty liver and a foie gras type substance has been in practice for thousands of years.
It is believed that the first types of foie gras may have been made in Egypt, and the tradition was certainly carried on in Rome. The Egyptians also fattened calves in this way. How the tradition spread to Europe is somewhat in dispute. Some culinary historians believe that Gallic peasants preserved the method after the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet others believe that the Jews residing in Israel under Roman occupation may have used the method.
A chef to the Transylvanian court notes the making of foie gras in a book in 1680. It’s significant to note that the Hungarians are the second largest producers of foie gras in the world. Recipes for foie gras may have existed in both the area surrounding Hungary, and in France.
There are several types of foie gras, which can be purchased in France. The types are distinguished by the cooking process and also by the amount of duck liver used. Duck is often thought of as producing an inferior product to the goose liver. France strictly determines how foie gras is labeled. Foie gras entier, is a presentation of one or two whole liver lobes, and may be cooked or uncooked. Foie gras is composed of pieces of goose liver. Bloc de foie gras is just as it sounds, a molded block of the liver that can contain duck pieces.
Most are familiar with the use of the liver in pâté. Foie gras is often served in this form, accompanied by wine, and bread. Beef Wellington is covered with foie gras pâté before being covered in pastry or bread dough.
The force-feeding technique that produces foie gras has come under significant criticism lately. Force-feeding ducks and geese is often considered cruel, and can cause damage to the bird’s esophagus resulting in a painful, though short, existence. The geese and ducks are force-fed through a tube that stretches almost a foot (30 cm) down the interior of the neck. In this way, the animal cannot refuse the food, and though the process takes under a minute, many feel it is unnecessary to treat animals in this way.
There has been such revulsion on how foie gras is produced, that many countries are enacting laws to ban either purchasing or production of the food. Even Pope Benedictine encouraged people to stop the practice. Unlike other animal rights issues, support for bans or stopping production crosses political lines, and different forms of government.
Chicago has become the first city in the US to completely ban importation and production of foie gras. California proposes a ban by 2012, and New York has a similar ban in the works. Countries that have completely banned the production of foie gras include Ireland, Argentina, Denmark, Italy, Poland and the UK. Other bans are being considered or are in process of being made into law. There is no evidence that the French, however, will ban foie gras.