Foie Gras: From Ancient Egypt to Ecuador by way of France

21/Diciembre/2012 | 15:17

By Lance Brashear

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Throughout its history Ecuador has had a well-documented political and culinary interaction with France; it seems, in fact, one often goes with the other. 

Napolean Bonaparte prompted the first shouts of independence an ocean away in Quito when he deposed King of Spain Fernando VII early in the 19th century.  Two decades later, as Ecuador sought recognition as an independent state, French cuisine helped to define the culinary scene of the times by lending cultural appeal and social acceptance. 

But it would take nearly two hundred years before Ecuador would begin to produce one of France’s most exquisite culinary dishes:  foie gras (pronounced “fwah grah”) – the fattened liver of duck or geese. 

Chiveria, an agro-industrial products company near Guayaquil, had been producing ducks for local consumption for 20 years when the idea of doing something new came about. 

“The owner of Chiveria came to eat one time in Guayaquil in a hotel where I worked,” says Jerome Monteillet, now well-known as Chez Jerome, in Quito.  “He asked to eat foie gras.  I told him that the only foie gras we have is from Canada and it was terrible and it would be a horror to prepare. But I prepared it and it was horrible.  He told me that in six months he would bring me another.  In six months he called me.”

Orlando Macias, administrator for Chiveria, says that during that time the company sent people to learn about the production and management of foie gras in Cataluña, Spain and brought the knowledge back to Ecuador.  “We did our tests locally and achieved the quality that we have now,” a quality validated by Quito´s French restaurants, all of which now purchase Chiveria’s foie gras. 

A Long History

Monteillet understands the tradition of foie gras very well, in part, because his family used to produce it; however, it is not something that originates from his native France. 

“If you look closely, France always was a land where the people appropriated things.  They appropriated the culture, the art, the food.  What is France?  It is where all influences have arrived…There is nothing that is our own,” says Monteillet. 

This includes the tradition of fattening migratory birds, which dates back to ancient Egypt where it eventually spread to the Mediterranean.  A low-relief carving in a tomb at the necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo (pictured above), depicts the force-feeding of geese during ancient Egyptian times.

During the Roman period the livers of geese were fattened by force feeding them figs.  Over time the tradition found its way to France, which today is the world’s largest producer and consumer of foie gras.

Not Just Any Bird

In general, duck and geese are used for fattened liver production because they have the capacity to gain weight due to their migratory nature.  Much of their stored fat accumulates in the liver. 

Foie gras is produced by utilizing particular species.  The Toulouse – a grey colored goose - and the Mulard duck are most commonly used for foie gras production.  The Mulard (not Mallard) is a cross-breed between a male Muscovy and a female Pekin duck.  At Chiveria, however, Macias says they use Muscovy ducks. 

Feeding is done almost exclusively with corn.  In France, Monteillet says a standard, fattened liver weighs around 600-800 grams.  According to Macias Chiveria produces two grades, all for local consumption.  Grade A ranges from 500-1000 grams, which sells for $80 per kilo.  Grade B weighs, on average, 300 grams and costs $40 per kilo.

Not Just Any Preparation

Essentiallly, foie gras can be served in one of two ways: hot or cold.   From there, the preparations vary immensely.  If hot it can be roasted, grilled, pan-seared or sautéed (known as “poelle”); if cold, it takes the form of parfaits, mousses, pates, or the half-cooked, “mi-cuit” preparation.

“You can make it very classical like with Rossini steak, or you can make a foie gras poele with a half-cooked tuna,” explains Monteillet.  The classical Rossini preparation is known as “Tournedos Rossini.”   He describes it as “Toasted bread with a filet mignon, foie gras, a mushroom sauce and Portobello [mushroom].”

As a chef Monteillet has his own preferences.  “What I like to do is roll it through chestnut flower. You cut two centimeters, roll it in flour, put it in a very hot pan and serve it with a semi-sweet sauce…it goes very well with fruit.  With a flambéed apple, with grapes or with grape sauce,” he says.

Monteillet also prepares foie gras mi-cuit.  “You let it marinate with milk to take out the acidity…then you remove the veins, and then there are thousands of flavors.  Afterwards you cook it in a vacuum…there are many ways to do it.”

For a Frenchman, though, a proliferation of preparations does not imply an absence of parameters when enjoying a national delicacy.  Monteillet makes a point of indicating how one is to enjoy foie gras:  “You never drink sweet wine [with cooked foie gras].  On the contrary you have a sherry, a dry wine, even champagne.  When it is cold foie gras, then you can have sweet wine,” he insists.

At Chez Jerome

In his restaurant Monteillet offers a foie gras poele starter with corn humita, salted apple, and semi-sweet sherry sauce.  Diners, though, would be wrong to assume the accompaniment of humita (a from of cornbread cooked in corn husks) is a local touch.

“Foie gras is from the southern province where I am from.  What do we feed the ducks?  Corn…we have a culinary tradition that to a certain extent is based on corn.  There is a cake in particular that I have eaten all my life that is made of corn that is like an humita…Corn goes very well with foie gras,” he assures.

And he makes one more observation and recommendation. “What were the geese fed originally [by the Egyptians]?  Figs.  If you serve yourself a foie gras with a corn humita and fig marmalade, you are in another place.”

The foie gras poelle starter at Chez Jerome costs $30, including taxes.  They are located at Whymper N30-96 and Coruña.  For reservations call 223-4067 or 600-0069.


Ciudad Quito

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lbrashear - en Diario HOY - Noticias de Ecuador.