Foie gras can evoke emotions of outrage in some and delight in others. It is certainly one of the most prized specialist foods in France. Sold in supermarkets, butcher’s shops or direct from the farm, made from the livers of geese or ducks, foie gras (fat liver) is a very French tradition although the method of production goes back to the days of ancient Egypt. Fattened liver can be produced by alternative methods without force feeding, and this is referred to either as “fatty goose liver” or as foie gras (outside of France) though it does not conform to the French legal definition. This method involves timing the preparation of the bird to coincide with the winter migration, when livers are naturally fattened.
Evelyn Jackson was invited to take part in a foie gras class and reveals that the preparation and traditions are important in the making this most French of dishes…
My friend, Christiane, had mentioned she would be ‘doing ducks’ soon, as the winter season was underway, and I’d asked her if she would take me through the very French process of turning ducks into foie gras, confit, pate and fritons. Christiane explained that the ducks needed to be processed almost immediately after butchering, so we had to wait for Didier, our village duck producer, to decide on the perfect day. When she phoned to let me know the day had come I was nervous, but ready.
Armed with my apron, a notepad and pen, I was prepared. The ducks were lying plucked and ready – one of them was mine. Christiane’s kitchen and long dining table were filled with jars and lids and every pot, pan and big bowl she could find. She had cutting boards and sharpened knives set up on her kitchen counter. Under her watchful eyes, I carefully opened the duck and cut away the livers and after Christiane demonstrated, began the delicate task of stripping and preparation. Each bowl held the ‘parts’…legs, necks, wings. The breasts were fileted into magrets; these would be wrapped and put in the freezer. We cut the livers into smaller pieces and packed them into the smallest canning jars, cleaning the rims and tightening the lids when they were full.
While all this cutting up was going on in the kitchen, Christiane’s husband, Jean-Paul was busy out in the garage with gas bottles, round fire rings, and a huge water-bath canner. By the time we had our small jars packed with liver, the garage was ready to receive them. Using clean pieces of rags to wrap the jars and pad them, Christiane loaded the huge processing pot and weighted down the jars with a few flat stones to keep them from floating. Jean-Paul filled the pot with water and turned on the heat. He would be in charge of watching the pot, checking the water temperature and timing the processing.
Before we finished our work for the day, Christiane made a rub of coarse salt, fresh ground pepper and various herbs and spices including thyme and bay leaves from her garden. We rubbed this all over the remaining duck pieces, covered the bowls, and sat down for a glass of wine. I went home and promptly took a nap. Doing ducks was exhausting work but it wasn’t yet finished, the next day we would complete the task.
The next morning when I returned for my foie gras lesson, Jean-Paul was already in the garage melting the duck fat and rendering what fat was left on the duck skins in a big pan on the gas fire ring. The salt mix we had rubbed on the duck pieces the day before needed to be wiped off. All the pieces went into the huge pan of melted duck fat to cook for an hour and a half. Christiane had already removed our processed jars of foie gras, and they sat proudly on the table…eighteen in all.
Every piece of the duck was used to make fabulous concoctions of duck meat mixed with ground pork, herbs, and splashes cognac and Armagnac in jars of various sizes. A good portion of melted fat was ladled into each jar, the rim wiped, and the lid secured. Then they were wrapped, padded and put into the big water-bath canner. They would process for an additional hour.
In the evening Christiane’s family and some friends met for an evening of ‘duck bones.’ The evening started with champagne and fritons spread on crackers along with some of the left-over pork stuffing pressed and cooked into a pate. The cooked bones of the ducks were piled into two huge platters on the dining table. Big bowls of salad, baskets of bread, and the ever-present bottles of red wine completed the table setting. The conversation was lively as we gnawed duck bones, broke bread, and washed it all down with wine. No fancy manners here…just good country eating with friends. I finished the evening feeling just a little more French!
So, what did I get from my one duck? Two jars of duck fat to use for frying potatoes. Four jars of foie gras. Half a dozen strips of magret for the freezer. Three tall jars of confit, one jar of paté, and a jar of fritons which are little pieces of left-over duck that Christiane whirred in the food processor with a little duck fat. I’ll use those to spread on toast or crackers. But best of all, I had fun with my French friends and learned a little bit more about French culture and the joy of eating traditional French food.
By Evelyn Jackson