Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Turning a duck’s liver…

December 10, 2010

…into a silken slice of ambrosia.

‘Tis the season of gourmet delicacies – truffles, oysters and foie gras – perennial stars of les fêtes de fin d’année. The seductive/repellant duality of these acquired tastes is undeniable.  There’s an unsettling aspect either to their appearance, texture or how they are produced, which heightens the guilty pleasure of consumption; earthy truffles detected by a pig’s snout, fresh oysters ingested essentially alive, and the incomparably subtle flavor of a force-fed duck’s swollen liver.

Working on French Country Hideaways, which features several properties that produce foie gras and truffles, I stopped short of hands-on involvement.  So when friends proposed an atelier foie gras offered by Maison Perrin, a small Touraine producer, I was all in.  I always found purchasing foie gras a challenge with so many variations and pricing inconsistencies. Numerous French friends prepare it at home, but I envisioned a complicated ritual.

Maison Perrin is a farm in La Celle Guenand, near Le Grand Pressigny, owned by Valérie and Philippe Charcellay.  Its remote location conjured images of a convivial country kitchen with our intimate group gathered round a worn trestle table scattered with earthenware terrines, warmed by the glow of an open hearth.  The destination conformed to expectation, as did a modest shop with hand woven baskets suspended from the ceiling, shelves stocked with conserved duck dishes from cassoulet to rillettes and a cold case stacked with vacuum-packed magrets, lobes of foie and jars of foie gras mi-cuit.  Maison Perrin

It was startling to discover that the idyllic kitchen was actually a chilly white tile and stainless steel laboratoire, where to match EU standards, the ambiance exuded the charm of a hospital canteen annexed to a morgue.  Comfort was not to be part of our experience.  The temperature had to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  I regretted forgoing the long underwear and fur-lined boots I’d considered because of snowy weather.  Gloves weren’t an option, but mercifully we got to warm our hands intermittently under a steamy tap.

Since the 1950s ducks have steadily replaced geese and today foie gras de canard dominates the market.  Goose livers are larger (average 1kg vs 600g for duck) but the process of force-feeding them is more demanding and consequently less cost efficient.  Geese are high strung and require three feedings per day at eight-hour intervals over three weeks.  They also suffer a higher mortality rate, unable to withstand stress.  Goose foie gras has a higher fat content, milder flavor and melts in the mouth consistency, but the palate of French consumers seems to have adapted without resistance to the switch, perhaps because duck is less expensive.

France is far and away the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of foie gras, and as with champagne, stringent rules for production are imposed to protect its status as intrinsic to the national patrimony.

All the hard work is done by the time you see the raw liver.  Producers do not always breed and raise the ducks themselves.  The race, called Mulard is a sterile cross between a female Pekin and a male Barbary.  Male Mulards are culled for uncut block foie gras, as the female liver is riddled with veins.  Female livers may be used for paté.  French producers resent that female ducks are used in Hungary, which is their chief competitor in the export market.

Traditional farms are stringent about starting the two weeks of force-feeding at 14 weeks, whereas industrial producers will begin with ducks as young as ten. Livers of corn fed ducks are tinged faintly yellow.  The pale, creamier tone of industrial brands sold in super markets is an indication that feed was cut with fillers.  The mash used by traditional producers is prepared by soaking whole corn kernels 24 hours in tepid water.

Ducks are kept in separate cages and fed twice a day at twelve-hour intervals over two weeks.  New EU legislation going into effect in 2012 bans cages.  Ducks will then have to be penned in small yards.  Valérie Charcellay, who knows animals have less pity than humans, is opposed to the ruling.  She explained that weaker animals (they all have limited mobility by the end of the gavage period) are set upon and injured by stronger ducks.  “They’re more comfortable and relaxed in cages.”

So what else did I learn… principally that there’s nothing’s intimidating about the preparation of foie gras in its varied guises, provided you’re not put off by the look and feel of the material you’re handling.  Manual dexterity and maintenance of ambient temperature (!) are key to successful preparation, cooking and optimal flavor when serving.  I also became an informed consumer, finally capable of separating wheat from chaff.

Our fresh livers were very cold to the touch, which made them somewhat brittle and apt to break into small bits rather than remain pliable like playdough.   Should you attempt this, be sure the liver is room temperature.  Any warmer, the fat starts to melt and it all gets a bit sticky.

I won’t go into full de-veining detail (unless you beg).  It’s a fiddly process but you get the hang of it after a few fumbled attempts.  Ultimately it’s a lot like working with cookie dough… except you’re never tempted to lick your fingers.

The best way to savor the unique character of foie gras is to interfere with it as little is possible.  As with all quality ingredients, less is more, from  handling to additives and  cooking.  A bit of salt and pepper is the only seasoning required.  Be suspicious of too many ingredients.  Uncooked lobes or mi-cuit ballotins can be frozen and slowly defrosted without losing flavor.  There’s no reason to settle for the fully cooked, less flavorful cuit option unless you have to transport it long distance (mi-cuit and uncooked foie require refrigeration).

The simplest option is to carve a raw lobe crosswise into half inch slices (at room termperature!) and sauté the slices one minute per side in a hot (not smoking) ungreased pan.  No need to remove veins and it’s positively decadent.  Delicious served with slightly caramelized apples or figs.

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