The Egyptians may have started the tradition about 4,500 years ago and the Romans given it its name two millennia later, but today foie gras means France.
“When people think of France, they think of foie gras—it’s the ultimate French specialty,” said Pasqua Garraccio, restaurant manager of Bougainvillier Hotel and Restaurant in Phnom Penh.
And the best way to savor foie gras is with another famed French product: Champagne, he said.
Making this delicacy is no simple matter and, even though the French have been experimenting with foie gras for more than two centuries, every time Bougainvillier Chef Guillaume Martin cooks a terrine, he dreads disaster.
“I’m always afraid of messing up, of putting too much salt or cooking it too long,” said Martin, who has been working in the kitchen for 14 of his 29 years. “It’s very hard to make. There is a precise dosage for seasonings to respect and a precise cooking temperature, which never vary.” Any deviation, and the foie gras is ruined, he said.
But it is not as if Martin was unaccustomed to cooking foie gras. The Bougainvillier restaurant has made the delicacy its signature offering along with fish, so he works with it every day.
One foie gras dish on the Bougainvillier menu is a variation on the multi-layered French pastry millefeuille. It consists of slices of smoked salmon and foie gras terrine between thin, crisp pastry layers, seasoned with a light sage cream sauce and minute squares of port wine jelly. One bite and a symphony of flavors seem to unfold, one after the other, on one’s palate, subtle and yet pronounced enough to leave a lingering taste.
Foie gras is also served as stuffing for duck breast, in raviolis with a zesty Champagne sauce and as plain terrine by the rich, velvety slice. Martin’s previous creations have included fresh Norwegian salmon stuffed with foie gras and mango puree.
Foie gras must be combined with ingredients whose flavors will not overpower it, said Garraccio who, at 28, has been in the field for 12 years. For example it goes well with sea bass or scallops, but not with fresh tuna and swordfish, he said.
The same goes for wine. Champagne or a white wine such as a Sauternes or a Riesling is perfect accompaniment for foie gras, Garraccio said. “Because of its gentle taste, it needs something a touch acidic or bitter, neither too sweet or too salty,” Martin added.
To make his foie gras, Martin uses livers from ducks raised especially for the purpose.
As explained at Web sites of several French foie-gras organizations, people first used goose liver. A wall painting about 4,500 years old discovered at Saqqara in Egypt shows Egyptians stuffing geese for foie gras.
The Romans who first brought foie gras to Europe fed the geese figs and gave their fattened liver the quite literal Latin name “jecur figatum,” meaning liver stuffed with figs.
The Romans introduced foie gras to France as they conquered the country, but it is only in the late 18th Century that the first pate recipes would appear in the southwest of France, and a century afterwards that the French passion for foie gras would truly start to develop.
Today, geese as well as ducks are raised for foie gras. Perhaps because of today’s health-conscious eaters, the leaner duck variety has become the most popular, even though goose foie gras may have an even subtler taste, Garraccio said.
Bougainvillier restaurant imports duck livers from Strasbourg, a city in the northeast of France renowned for foie gras. The raw livers, about 500 to 600 grams in size, arrive flash-frozen and vacuum-packed, Martin said.
Once a shipment has arrived, it takes four days for the terrine to be ready to serve, he said. The livers are first left to defrost for two days. Martin then cleans them and leaves them overnight to macerate in herbs and alcohol—his own secret recipe.
The following morning, he puts them in a terrine, an earthenware pan, and cooks them for 15 to 30 minutes in the gas oven in a double boiler. Afterwards, he compresses the foie gras and leaves it to stand for 24 hours. Finally, he puts a coat of duck fat on top to prevent oxidation.
In France, foie gras is served on special occasions and during festivities.
“There cannot be Christmas or New Year without foie gras,” Garraccio said. “It will always remain a luxury product.”