Foie gras is the enlarged liver of a goose or duck which has been force-fed maize (corn) every day for 2 to 3 weeks. The process exploits the natural ability of migrating waterfowl to store excess fat in their livers when they gorge themselves in preparation for long flights.
Although now produced in other countries and other parts of France, notably Alsace, foie gras is most closely associated with the southwest, where it forms a central part of the gastronomic culture. It was introduced to the region by the Romans, who used figs for the gavage as maize had not yet been brought Europe from the New World. Paler than a normal liver, extremely smooth, rich and nearly buttery in texture it's said foie gras is not eaten, it is savoured. It is typically served with toasted baguette rounds and a sweet wine.
Before refrigeration and mass distribution allowed more people to enjoy foie gras, it was consumed mainly in the southwest and was closely associated with the Christmas and New Year's Eve feasting. Why that time of year? Most farm families kept ducks and geese and the poultry was the exclusive domain of women. The winter months was the period when the farm woman had the time to devote to the gavage using maize had been harvested in the fall. After the bird was slaughtered, the meat was cooked and conserved in the abundant fat (confit) and the feathers and down used for the family's bedding.

When visiting the southwest you'll see foie gras, from either goose or duck, for sale everywhere and it can be difficult to choose between the different types. Briefly:
Whole foie gras (foie gras entier): one or several lobes simply covered in fat, with no additives or conservatives, just salted and peppered. From this base the best foie gras products are prepared.
Cooking permits the distinction between partially cooked whole foie gras (foie gras entier mi-cuit) with a limited conservation period and cooked whole foie gras (foie gras entier cuit) packed in jars or tins which will keep for several years.
Then you have products labeled "goose foie gras" or "duck foie gras" (foie gras d'oie, foie gras de canard) which is made from agglomerated pieces of different livers; block of foie gras, (bloc de foie gras) which is an emulsion of reconstituted livers) and finally pâtés, purées, parfaits, mousses and all sorts of other foie gras-based preparations.

Some foie gras producer cooperatives have their own shops selling a wide range of products. You can find foie gras from family farms at local outdoor markets or the special "marchés de gras" (literally fat markets) that are held in the winter and where you can also buy whole fattened geese and ducks. Often you will be served home-produced foie gras when you eat at a "table d'hôte".
Some people are put off trying foie gras by the method of force-feeding (gavage). On farms where the geese and ducks can range freely during the period of gavage, instead of being confined to small cages, the process is not traumatic for the birds. It's when foie gras is produced on an industrial scale that abuses occur. If you buy foie gras in small speciality shops in this area, or at a farmers market, it's more likely to come from small, local farms where the ducks are treated well-treated. One of the larger processors, Comtesse de Barry (a company that prepares, cooks and packages foie gras) does demand that the farmers who supply the livers respect several strict rules, such as allowing the birds to range freely and not confining them to cages during the period of gavage. It wants to be a standard-bearer in reforming the industry so to stave off threats to ban production of foie gras.

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