Foie Gras: A Long Journey

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Foie Gras, A Long Journey: 4500 years of gastronomy from the banks of the river Nile to the heart of South West French soil.

February is the period of marchés aux gras across the whole of France, markets where you can get your supplies of poultry meats, including capons, chicken liver, medallion and naturally the best of what duck and geese have to offer, the foie gras.

Known as the finest delicatessen of France and the quintescence of French gastronomy, foie gras has a long culinary tradition that goes back to more than 4500 years. But his fabrication process is polemic, as it is indeed force-feeding (gavage) which causes the liver to swell and lead to the death of the animal.

However, this practice that some people might find barbarian nowadays, has had a long tradition. As we know, stuffing of geese and other animals is a long lasting practice that originally ensured the survival of humans by providing them with essential fats.

We know that the practice of force-feeding animals is at least a 6000-year tradition but we do not know for sure how the process of making foie gras started. The answer may lie on the riverbanks of Egypt.

Surprisingly the origins may have started on the banks of the river Nile in Egypt where ancient Egyptians used to observe the migrating birds. It quickly came to their attention that these birds would fatten themselves up before undertaking their long journey back to Europe with a fatty liver, ‘foie gras.’ Egyptians progressively started breeding the birds.

Archeological evidence in the surroundings of Cairo depict scenes of force-feeding of animals. In the Louvre museum in Paris, an engraved stone depicts with precision two kitchen aids preparing a paste and using oil to pump into the stomachs of the birds.

In the Roman times, various ancient writers worshipped and celebrated foie gras as a delicacy and Apicius elaborated on a first recipe of foie gras in his culinary book ‘ De Recoquineria’.

It is assumed that the process of force-feeding would have been passed on from the Egyptians to the Greeks and to the Romans and later onto the Palestinian people who would have introduced this technique in some European countries including Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and France.

In 17th and 18th Century France, new cultures such as the harvesting of corn, potatoes and the breeding of ducks were being intoduced. While being exempt from royal taxes, these started spreading across the South West and Eastern France, making their appearance in local markets which provided additional income to the farmers. Many cities in South West France become main centres. Still today the tradition of marchés gras in towns like Samatan, Brive, Pomarez, Gimont, Périgueux and Sarlat live on.

Today foie gras remains part of the national gastonomical and cultural heritage of France, even though its production has been challenged by European competition, especially from Eastern European countries but also weakened by successive waves of avian flu over recent years.

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