Foie gras: a rich history
In the beginning, foie gras was produced by farmers and cooks, with the knowledge and expertise being passed from generation to generation. Until 1860, foie gras tended to be eaten where it was made. However, with the discovery of canning food as a means of preservation, its flavour became known across the country.
The recipe for foie gras is simple: foie gras, salt and pepper. However, good foie gras is dependent on the cook’s skill and the quality of the ingredients. Our ancestors knew how important it was to allow their cattle to graze peacefully in their pastures and to provide cereals for their geese and ducks.
Foie gras became ever more popular and instead of being eaten only locally, on farms or in the surrounding restaurants, an ever-increasing number of top restaurants began to want to offer it to their own clientele.
Slowly, from the 1960s onwards, the product began to be produced commercially. Some small factories grew up but much larger operators attracted by the potential profits they could make, looked to using or adapting their existing processes to manufacture foie gras. Through reducing production costs, and thus lowering prices, they were able to drive profit even higher. Why feed the ducks on maize when flour would do? Why let them roam free when they could be caged and fed antibiotics like battery hens?
For the large manufacturers to succeed, they needed to use the hypermarkets as their route to market, with their demands for ever-lower prices and standardisation of products. Worse, they began to use clever marketing to fool customers into believing they were buying a quality, traditionally made product: expensive looking labels, brand names conjuring images of the highest quality products etc.
1990: introduction of PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) for Foie Gras
Throughout the 1980s, local foie gras producers saw their only means of growing their business was to compromise on quality. They came together and drew up a quality charter which resulted in the introduction of PGI which is the equivalent of the Appellation given to wines. The introduction of production standards has undoubtedly resulted in better quality products.
Clearly, some of the industrial producers have, of course, obtained the right to use this mark of quality and arguably comply with the required standards. There is nothing to prevent a factory employing 500 people from producing foie gras and using the PGI, even if this goes against the spirit of PGI.
Alongside this PGI, another group of producers from the Landes region decided to introduce the Label Rouge. Label Rouge defines extremely exacting standards and consequently can be used by very few producers. It does, however, reflect the high quality of some very fine foies gras. Conversely, « Made in France » on its own means little except that the foie gras was processed in France.
French hypermarkets are displaying more and more foie gras which is clearly labelled Made in France. These products vary enormously in quality from the best (from a small producer in the South-West of France who is producing an extremely fine foie gras), to the mediocre (the animals are reared in France, often around the Loire and in the West where their diet is not rich in cereals) to the poor (produced using livers imported from Central Europe which are transported in refrigerated lorries to be processed on an industrial scale in French factories).
It is rare that you will find products from small producers on the hypermarket shelves and equally rare to see a product stamped manufactured using imported livers.
Very little of the goose foie gras which is sold in France is produced from animals reared in France. An entire sector in Perigord is currently lobbying for PGI for these products which are currently labelled Appellation Oie du Périgord.
The PGIs cannot guarantee the taste of products which carry the mark. In the same way that you can come across a bad Médoc or substandard Sauternes, there are poorer quality foies gras which have PGI protection. Nevertheless, while you should always select a product with PGI, the only sure way to establish its quality is to taste it!