Monday, 26 May 2014

Foie Gras: A Passion by Michael Ginor: Tour de Foies

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Easier than frying an egg

Foie gras is one of those legendary foods, like truffles, sweetbreads and plumped ortolans, which tend to intimidate the home cook. Maybe it’s the cost, maybe it’s the historical baggage, but I suspect the average chef would rather tackle cloudberry soufflé for fifteen than prepare a foie gras terrine.

Not nearly as hard as you think
But that just ain't so.

If you can fry an egg then you can cook foie gras.

Simply carve some fat slices off a raw duck foie gras (about the width of your thumb). Season and drop into a smoking-hot frying pan for thirty seconds until a brown crust forms, flip, repeat (don’t be alarmed if it seems to be melting away – after it is effectively a slab of slightly livery duck-butter) and serve on toasted brioche points with a few segments of gently warmed orange.

The problem then isn’t difficulty, or even expense (a generous portion of raw foie gas doesn’t actually cost much more than a good filet mignon). It’s simply unfamiliarity. Foie gras sits on a pedestal of unapproachability because people don’t know any better.

And there’s also the image problem. In recent years foie gras has come under increasing attack for the allegedly “cruelty” involved in its production. Because of their unfamiliarity, people simply swallow that line that foie gras is “torture in a tin”. It becomes a guilty pleasure, which people enjoy in spite of themselves.

That’s where Michael Ginor comes in with his 1999 book Foie Gras: A Passion.

Magic Mike

Michael Ginor is the Israeli/American co-founder of Hudson Valley, America’s largest foie gras producer, and the godfather of the US foie gras trade. Softly-spoken and philosophical, he has been one of the driving forces behind turning foie gras in America from an unpronounceable French import into a fine-dining staple. More recently he has become the voice of reasonableness defending his industry against the increasingly vocal anti-foie gras lobby.

More importantly his book Foie Gras: A Passion is the single best book on the subject ever written. Although he clearly has a vested interested in promoting what he calls the “foie gras gospel” this is so much more than a puff piece. The man is absolutely passionate about what it does, and it shows.

Phaidon would kill to have this line-up
The publisher is Wiley; an academic house best known for the CIA (no not that CIA) textbook The Professional Chef (which was, until Modernist Cuisine, probably the world’s heaviest cookbook). It’s a shame to pigeonhole them as a textbook-shop though because they have also published some of the most significant food books of the past twenty years – not least among them Dornenburg & Page’s ground-breaking Culinary Artistry, Grande Finales: The Art of the Plated Dessert (the ultimate volume of dessert-food-porn), and the works of James Peterson, the greatest teacher-chef since Jacques Pepin.

And Ginor’s Foie Gras is very much in keeping with this grand tradition. What you get is actually two books in one – the first is an exhaustive treatise running to nearly a hundred pages on the history, production and usage of foie gras. The second part – and the heart of the book - contains over eighty foie gras recipes contributed by the great and the good of the (1999) culinary firmament.

Let’s take a look.

Foie Gras – The Potted History

Ancient history

The menu from the Yehuda Avazi grill in Tel Aviv. Foie
gras skewers cost 25 shekels (around $6 in 1999 money)
Ginor starts with his own story. His first taste of foie gras came not in some Parisian temple but at a humble outdoor grill in Tel Aviv where skewers of charred foie gras were served up alongside fries and freshly-based flatbreads (I guess that would be why they call it the Promised Land… :-p).

He swiftly moves on to the history of foie gras, a fascinating exercise in culinary archaeology. He begins with the tomb reliefs of ancient Egypt, the first known examples of gavage (fattening waterfowl by force-feeding), and then follows the thread through the writings and the raucous banquests of ancient Rome, where
Ancient Egyptian carvings show the first recorded
examples of foie gras production
The livers were customarily served whole to display their size and whiteness, then carved at the table. In this way, guests could watch as the carver’s knife sliced into the soft flesh and the clear, slightly pink juices ran onto the platter. The flavour and feel of the meat was well suited to the Roman taste for luxury… the meat’s high percentage of fat causes it to flow down the throat like warm cream.
From here he follows the quest into the Dark Ages, unpicking the mystery of how foie gras production was handed down after the fall of Rome. Although received wisdom is that crafty French peasants kept the old ways alive, Ginor presents an alternate theory that Ashkenazi Jews also plays a role, teasing out oblique references fattening geese from the writings of medieval rabbis to support his thesis. The detective work is commendable.

French lessons

Once we reach medieval Europe the story of foie gras also intertwines with another tale, that of the rise of French cuisine and fine dining. So we see foie gras described in La Varennes’ Le Cuisinier Francois, the foundational text of French cookery (including an inevitable pairing with truffles). As we move into the Renaissance we see recipes for foie gras ragouts and tourtes (the ancestor of the modern foie gras en croute), as well as more outre preparations such as a stew of sea duck, foie gras and chocolate (sounds like something Pierre Gagnaire might whip up today).

Careme's humble foie gras stew... :-x
Come the Revolution the aristocrats go to the guillotine and their grand houses are dissolved, which of course opens the way for the modern restaurant as hundreds of unemployed country-house chefs rush to earn their keep. Foie gras is, of course, an essential part of their toolkit and soon we are onto Careme, Escoffier and all that jazz (e.g. Careme's  ragout a la financiere employing a small Strasbourg foie gras, half a pound of truffles, cocks coms, kidneys and lamb sweetbreads :-x).

Foie gras without the French

However the great strength of this account is that for Ginor's world doesn’t just revolve around France. His American/Israeli background gives him a perspective which most other Francophone (or Francophile) treatments lack. So he also presents a number of interesting counterpoints to the thus-far French-driven narrative:

One counterpoint is the British, who stand aloof on the edge of the story. They are the first to comment on the apparent cruelty of the force-feeding, something which Ginor theorises prevented them from producing foie gras themselves.

An Alsatian rabbi examines
a fattened goose
A second counterpoint is Israel, where Hungarian Holocaust survivors brought the secrets of foie-gras preparation to the fledgling state in 1948 (which explains how Ginor came across the delicacy that evening in Tel Aviv).

But the last and most important counterpoint is the American experience. He provides a potted history of the evolution for French restaurants in New York. We start with Delmonico’s in the nineteenth century, serving up imported Strasbourg pates for railway magnates like “Diamond Jim” Brady, who’s Rabelasian appetites expanded his stomach to three times that of a normal man. Fast forward through the Prohibition era and we have The Colony, a faux-Continental establishment frequented by hard-drinking socialites and celebrities. However it is not until the 1940s and Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon that haute cuisine really began to arrive. The foie gras though, as Jacque Pepin discovered when he came to NY in 1959, was still tinned although enterprising French chefs ran a smuggling ring shipping in the fresh stuff hidden in suitcases or cases of fish.

Then in the 1980s as American chefs started to discover their own cuisine, so they also discovered domestically produced foie gras pioneered by Hudson Valley on the East Coast and by Sonoma Foie Gras in California. This brings to story full circle to Ginor’s day job – the raising of ducks and the production of foie gras. This is where he speaks with real authority, which is important for the controversies that follow:

The Foie Gras Wars

Battle Stations...

Not to be confused with Foie Gras! Source: Ocado
In the fifteen years since the publication of this book foie gras – hitherto a rather rare and obscure delicacy – has become a controversial topic. Most famously, California and Chicago both banned its sale (although the latter has since been repealed). In the UK a campaign fronted by Roger Moore has persuaded middle-class stalwarts Waitrose and Selfridges to stop carrying it (although Waitrose does sell an endearing ersatz liver pate called Faux Gras; it resembles foie gras in the same way that a Big Mac resembles a hamburger). France, of course, carries inflating and slaughtering duck livers with merry abandon.

Three reasons why foie gras critics are wrong

A full discussion of the rights and wrongs of foie gras is beyond the scope of this review,

but having spent a long time ploughing through material from both sides I would make the following points:

  • Many of the arguments against foie gras are actually arguments against bad husbandry: The anti-foie gras lobby tend to use highly emotive pictures of caged and rather distressed looking birds. However they fail to make clear is why these are arguments against foie gras. What they are really showing are arguments against bad animal husbandry. There  is nothing about keeping a duck in a cage which is intrinsic to the foie gras process (actually cages are not used in the US and will be phased out in Europe from next year). If you mistreat a duck you will get a sick duck, just as if you mistreat a cow you will get a sick cow. But a sick cow is not an argument against foie gras. What it is, is an argument against bad husbandry.
Anti foie-gras piece overlaid
with amusing automated mobile
advert-targeting fail :-p
  • Many arguments against foie gras are driven by misguided anthropomorphism: Sticking a feeding tube down your throat is cruel. Ergo sticking a feeding tube down a duck’s throat is cruel right? Well no actually, because of the simple fact that a duck isn’t a human. For example, duck's throats are lined with a keratinous (horn-like) coating because they are designed to ingest spiny fish; compared to that a feeding tube is chickenfeed. What's more the tube doesn’t even choke the duck because ducks breath through a tube in their tongue not through their throats. The underlying fallacy here is a misguided anthropomorphism which says "if it’s wrong to do something to a person it’s wrong to do something to a duck". Well, it’s also wrong to kill a human and eat its flesh, but that’s not going to stop me enjoying my next steak…
  • Foie gras is attacked because it’s an easy target: If animal rights protesters really cared about eliminating the greatest suffering for the greatest number of animals then you’d have thought they’d pick another target. For example rather than going after the US foie gras industry (450k birds a year) they might think about going after the boiler hen industry (9 BILLION birds a year) which raises more animals in greater squalor and suffering than the most wild-eyed gavage-monger. But they don’t for the simple reason that foie gras is an easy target. The industry is small, it lacks lobbying clout, it’s perceived as elitist and it has a funny foreign name (remember many bans were enacted in the febrile post-9/11 era when France and “Old Europe” refused to back the war in Iraq). In short the anti-foie gras lobby is acting like a classic playground bully, picking on the easiest target and trying to create cynical “wedge issue”. Even if their arguments were coherent, their motives would still be dishonourable.
You'd be quackers not to read it
There’s a lot more to be written on this which I would like to cover in a separate post, but if you do want to understand what’s really going on then you should do two things. First order and read Mark Caro’s The Foie Gras Wars, a thorough and even-handed piece of reportage from the frontlines of the US debate. Secondly download and listen to this talk from anthropologist and foie gras obsessive Michaela DeSoucey, which expertly teases out the politics behind the protests.

Michael's Modest Proposal

I said at the beginning of this post the biggest challenge for foie gras producers isn’t actually winning the argument, it’s public unfamiliarity with foie gras. For his part Ginor devotes two pages to the cruelty debate. If the book were written more recently I suspect they would be more, but in the space allotted he does a good job of addressing some of the basic misconceptions:

  • The anatomy of waterfowl are different from humans; birds gorge natural before flight and the oesophagus is lined with keratin so tube-feeding does not cause discomfort.
  • Monitoring of corticosterone levels in ducks show they are not stressed by the force-feeding process.
  • Fattened foie gras livers are not “diseased” as diseases like diabetes and “fatty liver” does not occur in ducks as in mammals
His full comments are shown below (click on the image to zoom). If you can set aside any "well he would say that wouldn't he" cynicism, it is actually a sensible and well-reasoned piece:

First catch your duck…

The first half of the book concludes with five pages on the practicalities of choosing, preparing and cooking foie gras. There is good material on what to look for in a liver, but this is the one part of the book where I feel he could have done more. In particular the section dealing with the notoriously tricky business of cleaning a de-veining the raw liver could definitely do with some hands-on pictures. If you want a better hands-on guide I thoroughly recommend either the section in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook, or the chapter James Peterson’s comprehensive guide-to-French cuisine-with-knobs-on, Glorious French Food.

The Recipes

It is in the second part that this book really shines as we pile into the eighty-two foie gras recipes – the largest single selection in any cookbook (the closest I could find is Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine with a mere fourteen).

82 shades of foie gras - the full list of recipes!
The recipes aren’t Ginor’s, rather they come from his cheffy mates. And not just any old cheffy mates – the contributor list is a Who’s Who of haute cuisine. With the possible exception of the Adrias (remember El Bulli was a random provincial three star back then) anyone who was anyone in 1999 then gets a look-in.

From Europe we have Ducasse, Gagnaire and Bocuse. From America the godfathers of 80s cuisine all feature (Pepin, O’Connell, Palladin) as well as the new generation who surpassed them (Keller, Nobu, Ripert). Also notable are the presence of some regional American chefs not normally seen outside of James Beard House dinners (Alan Wong from Hawaii, Susur Lee from Toronto, Susanna Foo from Philly).

And the great thing is these chefs have brought their A-Game. Often compilation cookbooks are full of recycled off-cuts, culled from a chef’s latest book. Not so here. Perhaps it’s the magic spell of foie gras, or perhaps it’s just Ginor’s persuasiveness but this book is chock-full of eye-popping and drool-worthy recipes.

Truffles three times a day

Let’s start with the truffles. This is a foie gras book so of course there are plenty of truffles. The very first recipe is Marc Meneau’s famous Cromequis of Foie Gras (p96), crispy breaded shells filled with a molten truffled foie gras centre. He uses the old Shanghai soup dumpling trip of setting the filling with gelatine and letting it melt in the final cooking. Paul Bocuse of course chips in with his signature Soupe aux Truffes VGE, a beef consommé larded with truffles and topped with puff-pastry (think of it as a truffle pot-pie without the pie; p242). Eric Ripert also plays the tuber melanosporum card by matching seared foie gras with sautéed scallops, crispy artichokes and black truffle (p248).

And for something a bit different...

Of course it’s not all foie gras and truffle (#firstworldproblems!). There are plenty of more innovative combinations. Pierre Gagnaire has a typically off-the-wall dish of tea-poached foie gras with watermelon, papaya, pine nuts… and cheese (this is one of the few recipes I’ve seen which poach foie gras – a highly underrated way of cooking it; p146). Strasbourg veteran Marc Haeberlin offers a rustic vision of foie gras with poached and crispy tripe (p164). Thomas Keller deploys a similar textural contrast by stacking a crouton with sautéed foie gras, abalone and a Meyer lemon sauce (p246).

Foie gras TV dinners

Then there are also a bunch of dishes which I would call “haute cuisine TV dinners” – home-style comfort food with an injection of foie gras. “Happy ChefMichel Richard has a typically whimsical “FoieReo”, sandwiching foie gras mousse between buttery foie-gras cookies (p98). Susanna Foo does the whole fusion-thing with foie gras & shiitake pot-stockers (p178). But to me the most evocative dish comes from Ukrainian ballet-dancer-turned-chef Dano Hutnik with his family recipe for peasant-style potted foie gras with Hungarian duck crackling biscuits (p228).

Let me repeat that. DUCK. CRACKLING. BISCUITS. :-p

Need I say more?

New World tastes

But to me the most interesting dishes are the ones which come from the generation of younger US-born chefs who were just making their mark as this book went to press. Two in particular stand out for me, both from NY chef David Burke. The first is a caraway-infused corn custard, served steamed in eggshells and topped with honey-glazed foie gras (p102). Think of it as the bastard half-child of a foie gras chawanmushi and the Arpege egg. A smooth custard with a corny-sweetness, lifted by a hit of smoky toasted caraway. Crispy melting foie gras. Kernels of crunchy corn and a scattering of chives. It’s a deceptively simple dish, but one with a rare sense of balance.

Burke’s second dish is a complete contrast: Crispy barbecued squab is served on a layered torte of cornbread, foie gras and the shredded leg. On the side is a coffee-barbecue sauce and an onion-pistachio marmalade (p292). A much more aggressive dish but again one which pulls together French luxury and American flavours (cornbread, barbecue). It is not a foie gras dish per se, rather a modern American dish which uses foie gras.

Of course with that many dishes not all of them are perfect. There are a few rather ropey Tex-Mex-With-Foie dishes which don’t quite work for me. And occasionally hilarious examples of culinary-overreach – most notably Susur Lee’s condiment inferno of “Almond-Crusted Croquette of Foie Gras with Truffled Scallop Mousse, Carrot-Ginger Marmalade, Tomato-Fennel Seed Confit and Crab Bisque” (bear in mind this is the chef who produced a two-part concertina-folding biography-cum-cookbook; p156).

Read this book if you care about your food

To sum up, this isn’t just the best book every written about foie gras. It is one of the best examples of an ingredient-led cookbook full stop.

Here are three reasons why:

First Ginor provides new and insightful content. There is a wealth of content here that you will not find anywhere else. His experience as a practitioner means he can explain where the ingredient comes from, not just how it is prepared. But on top of the practical experience his exhaustive history of foie gras is a work of genuine scholarship.

This is particularly important in the context of the ongoing “Foie Gras Wars”. As I said at the beginning the biggest challenge for foie gras producers isn’t having the right answers, it is addressing public ignorance and indifference. Ginor’s passion and knowledge help balance the scales.

Second he has marshaled a treasury of fantastic recipes. He has not only convinced the greatest chefs in the world to contribute, but he has made sure they have brought their best to the party. This man should herd cats for a living, not ducks.

Finally there’s the subject matter itself. It’s hard to get excited about a cookbook about duck, or even say trout, no matter how well written they may be. However foie gras is an ingredient of unique luxury and deliciousness. As Sydney Smith once said, “my idea of heaven is eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.”

But foie gras is more than just an ingredient. The arguments raised in the “Foie Gras Wars” touch on fundamental debates about animal rights and how industrialisation affects what we eat. That is why even fifteen years after it was published, this book remains as essential as ever. If you care about the food you eat, then you should read this book.