Rosengarten Classic. Originally Published: ROSENGARTEN REPORT, November 2004.
The foie gras name game is designed to be as confusing as possible (the governing theory being that your confusion is cash in their bank). If you can solve this Gascon Rubik’s cube, however, you’ve got some serious chow in your near future…as well as all the info you need to make a good shopping choice. (Eat it on the way to your MENSA meeting!) Those who don’t have hours to untangle the web of mystery should know that I was always the kid who pulled the stickers off and matched up the colors in a flash. So, in the true spirit of gamesmanship, here’s the straight talk on all things foie gras, as you’ll see ’em represented on labels in the stores.
The most basic form of foie gras you can buy—uncooked liver. Almost always, in fact, what you’re buying is a whole, uncooked liver, which weighs approximately 1½ lbs Raw foie gras is just like any other raw meat—It usually needs to be cooked before you can dig in. Think of it as your miracle base for all other foie gras products. You can slice it, chop it, sear it, poach it, blend it—just be sure you cook it.
If you see this on a label, it is telling you that the product inside was made from a part of a foie gras liver. You see, the whole liver comes straight from the bird with a funny-lookin’ crack down the center. Separate the liver at the crack, and you’ve got 2 lobes of foie gras, one slightly larger than the other. Unfortunately, not everyone uses this term correctly! Sometimes when a producer says “lobe” on the label—he’s actually referring to the whole liver. What a mess!
Now, you might think that this term designates a whole, raw liver…and it can. However, more often, on a label—let’s say on a jar of cooked foie gras—it’s telling you that the product within was made from a single liver, or a single lobe of a liver (or two livers if the product is large enough to require more). It is telling you that the product is not made from the small pieces of many livers. To make matters more confusing, this doesn’t mean that the “whole” liver must be kept in one solid piece by the producer—It is usually opened up, de-veined, seasoned and put back together. What you won’t be getting, however, is a product made from foie gras purée—which would have a whole different texture than a product made from a big chunk of liver.
Block or Bloc
This is the term that kills me—and, possibly, your checkbook. Doesn’t “block” (or bloc, in French) sound like the product was made from one whole chunk of a foie gras liver? In reality, it means almost the opposite. A block of foie gras is made from pieces of different livers pressed together into a solid form, usually with some of them in less-than-whole condition. Some may even be really less than whole, like puréed. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. The quality of blocks is all over the place—I tried some with a lively, real texture, and others that could have fallen victim to cooked oatmeal in a side-by-side tasting. Think of the difference between a “block” and a product labeled “whole” as the difference between ground beef and steak. Who knows how many steers contribute to your pound of ground beef?…but when you buy a steak, you know you’re buying into a single animal.
Now we’re getting into the high-level course on foie obfuscation. A terrine, in its most literal sense, is a cooking vessel—a mold, made from earthenware (hence the “terre” connection), usually rectangular, in which you cook a loaf of something. In the world of French charcuterie, the word “terrine,” at some point in history, got transferred from the vessel to the meat loaf that was cooked in the vessel (you can have a coarse country terrine, or a terrine of foie gras). Ah good, you say—that’s clear! No it’s not. Because sometimes a foie gras terrine is made from “whole” pieces of foie gras, which creates the best texture–but sometimes it is technically a “block,” made from foie gras mush, which, aesthetically, is a whole different animal. In a perfect world, a terrine would be defined as a very different product from a block. Unfortunately, as far as the commercial market is concerned, a terrine is often just a really nice block. Many companies take their highest quality products and call them terrines, even though they are technically blocks. Compounding the mess, though terrines are meant to be cooked in rectangular terrine molds, that historical tradition is almost irrelevant in the modern commercial context.
Literally French for dish towel (yum), a torchon of foie gras is pretty much the same thing as a terrine—except that the liver has been wrapped in a towel or cheesecloth (or more commonly plastic wrap), rolled into a cylindrical shape, and lightly poached. The terrine-like foie gras it yields can be excellent. It’s a name you’ll especially see on restaurant menus, often used by chefs who prefer to cook their foie gras this way over oven-cooking it in a terrine mold.
Okay, buckle your seat belt. Now we get to the tricky world of “degree of doneness” terminology…and it ain’t as simple as “rare” or “well done.” A terrine, you see, can be cooked to different levels of doneness. Generally speaking, the lower the internal temperature that the terrine reaches (the less cooking), the better the texture and flavor of that terrine will be. But you can’t go too low; in order to prepare a terrine for the market, it does have to be cooked somewhat. So the classic description (and code language) for a terrine that has gotten the high-quality, low-temperature treatment is “mi-cuit,” short for “demi-cuit,” which, of course, means “half-cooked” in French. First problem: don’t take it literally. “Mi-cuit” is actually a little more cuit than the name suggests. It is cooked to an internal temperature of 160 to 185°F—not enough to be shelf-stable, but it will last for months in the fridge. So is “mi-cuit” a guarantee of quality? No. You can find mi-cuit foie gras in metal cans and glass jars that hardly seems to deserve the designation “mi-cuit.” Conversely, lots of great terrines that don’t say “mi-cuit” really do have the classic, undercooked character. Caveat emptor. Remember: if you’re looking for the joy of lightly cooked foie gras terrine, “refrigerated” is probably the best word you can see on a label.
Often branded “cat food” by foie gras connoisseurs, fully cooked foie gras is built to survive a nuclear holocaust—probably because it’s already been nuked. They cook this stuff to an internal temperature of 220 to 240°F—which totally obliterates any vestige of fresh foie gras. You’ll find fully cooked foie gras in metal cans (hence the feline nickname) or glass jars, both of which are shelf-stable for several years. If you’re in need of some foie gras for the emergency ration kit in your bomb shelter, this is precisely the stuff for you.
Lastly…what to make of the “mousse,” a name that turns up on many labels. What, indeed? The bastard son of the block, foie gras mousse is hit-and-miss. Problemo numero uno is texture. Mousses are made of blended foie gras paste, which can often end up feeling tacky and fake. Even if you can get past that, the dirty little secret of this product is its foie gras content: mousses can legally contain as little as 50 percent foie gras! Other fillers are often blended in, including non-fattened duck livers, duck fat, pork, pork fat, etc. The list goes on. To make matters worse, many flavoring ingredients can be thrown into the mix, and a little bit of air (sometimes more than a little) can be whipped in to lighten the load. But don’t damn all mousses. Some of these lighter, moussier products are quite nice for what they are—not exactly foie gras, but good mousses of foie gras. Furthermore, mousses are sometimes made with 100 percent foie gras, and are sometimes at the quality level of great terrines. One last note: if you ever come across a product labeled “parfait” (I didn’t), it will always contain at least 75 percent foie gras by law.
The duck stops here.