Foie gras is simply the enhanced liver of a duck or a goose.
The art of raising ducks and geese for foie gras demands a low-stress environment (birds under stress produce low-quality or no foie gras).
It is produced by a few small farmers in the United States (and many more around the world, especially France) by tube-feeding ducks or geese by hand twice a day for the two weeks prior to processing. This simulates their natural propensity to gorge themselves in preparation for migration and results in an enlarged liver with a sweet, rich taste and smooth-as-butter texture.
A Delicacy with Lots of History
Ancient Egyptians discovered the secret of the delicacy when hunting migratory ducks and geese in the waters of the Nile River. In nature, these birds gorge themselves prior to long migrations. They store the resulting extra calories in their livers and skin as fat, and use it as fuel during the journey. After migration, the size of their livers returns to normal.
Egyptians took advantage of the migratory geese that wintered in the Nile delta and domesticated them fairly early. The goose also figured prominently in their creation myths, with the god Geb, who had the head of a goose. Later the goose became associated with the god Amon, whose priests raised geese near the temples for sacrificial offerings, and for food, as Herodotus noted with surprise in the fifth-century B.C. Geese were depicted in tomb paintings as an important part of daily life, diet, and medicine (the goose fat was used for balms). In the necropolis of Saqqara, dating around 2500 B.C., there is a painting that shows the force feeding of geese. Egyptians valued the meat, the fat and the liver of the goose.
From Egypt the practice spread across the Mediterranean to Greece, where Homer mentions geese being fed wheat soaked in water in the Odyssey, and ultimately to Rome, where culinary history really gets exciting. It was in Rome that cooking was elevated from a job for slaves to an art form. In the third century B.C. the Romans discovered that feeding some types of fruit to the birds further enhanced the taste of foie gras. It was likely the Romans that began raising geese for the specific purpose of creating foie gras, and for the first time gave it a special name, iecur ficatum, literally meaning “fig-stuffed liver.” Pliny the Elder comments in his Natural History on the practice of feeding figs to geese to fatten them, as does Cato, who describes the technique being used on farmyard hens as well.
From Greece and Rome, foie gras spread to Europe, especially France, largely through the influence of Jews who used goose and duck fat as their cooking medium of choice. They fattened their birds to produce both foie gras and cooking fat. In the 1500s foie gras became widely accepted by gastronomes across Europe. The French remain the largest producers (and consumers) of foie gras, and the Southwest of France is well known for traditional foie gras production.
In the mid-1980s Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan, almost single-handedly introduced fresh, domestically-raised foie gras to America, which until then had only been available as a canned product. She first sold foie gras to top restaurants in New York, often with classically trained chefs in the kitchens, and then to retailers and home chefs across the country. With her Gascogne background and a famous chef for a father she was well positioned to teach America about foie gras.