There seems to be a movement in the US to ban foie gras for 'cruelty' to animals. This is nonsense - neither ducks nor geese have a gag reflex - and anti-Semitic.
Sephardi Jews had olive oil, but Ashkenazim had to use fat. Pork schmaltz is not kosher, so instead they continued the ancient Roman practice of over-feeding geese and ducks to produce more fat for cooking. A fatty liver - foie gras - is an agricultural by-product of kosher cuisine. Banning foie gras can therefore be interpreted as anti-Semitism, striking at the heart of Jewish culture - the home.
Carolin C. Young, a food historian, got rather angry when I explained this theory, but the evidence is clear.
See - Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch, c. 1581: who describes livers of one to even two kilos in the Jewish households of Bohemia.
As is clear in this Egyptian relief from a Giza tomb (Boston MFA, late Dynasty 6 or later, 2323–2150 BC), feeding geese has been the norm for as long as we have records of agriculture. We have a scene, of the mass-feeding of geese, from the tomb of Mereruka, Vizier of Teti.
Classical references to feeding geese Cratinus (5th century BC Athens), and Agesilaus' 360 BC visit to Egypt (Plutarch).
The Romans, notably Pliny, write of "iecur ficatum" which means liver+fig - the figs were used to fatten the liver whilst still in the bird, rather than used as a sauce. Though that might work too. Liver in Italian is fegato, which might derive from this.
Apicius made the discovery, that we may employ the same artificial method of increasing the size of the liver of the sow, as of that of the goose. It consists in cramming them with dried figs and when they are fat enough they are drenched in wine mixed with honey and immediately killed.The ancient Gauls were particularly fond of it, both before and after Caesar's invasion. Elagabalus "fed his dogs on goose-livers" - although it is unclear whether this is because he loved his dogs or disliked foie gras himself [Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 21].
Pliny NH 8.77
Foie gras is not attested between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern period - except in Jewish culture. As well as the [gentile] Rumpolt book, there are many rabbinical discussions about whether or not feeding geese and ducks made them treif.
The first recipe for cooking foie gras, and the first mention of it in non-Jewish accounts since antiquity, is in the 1570 cook book by Bartolomeo Scappi, the chef to Pius V. He got his fat livers from the Jewish in Rome's ghetto, as he wrote in his book, and reintroduced the dish to Italy. It returned to France in the time of Catherine de' Medici.
We made foie gras this year. Poaching is much easier than making a terrine. After lengthy, highly animated discussions and experimentation, this is the version of the recipe that works best for me:
Poached Foie Gras.
Take a lobe of uncooked duck or goose liver.
Fill a saucepan with enough red wine to cover the foie gras. Add a tsp of cinnamon and a pinch of ground cloves or two whole cloves.
Bring the wine to the boil, then turn down and simmer for a minute or so.
Take the pan off the heat, and pop in the whole foie gras.
Cover with a lid, and leave to stand (off the heat) for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes take the liver out of the wine, drain, and put it into a dish.
Place the dish in the refrigerator for an hour or two, to 'set' the liver.
Slice and serve. I like it on fresh bread with a sprinkle of good sea salt and a drizzle of creme de marrons. Others prefer some cranberry sauce.
Copyright © 2008 Dorothy King including photos 3 & 4; photos 1 & 2 courtesy of the MFA, Boston.