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Historical records show that the production of foie gras dates all the way back to the dynastic Egyptian aristocracy, over 5,000 years ago. At the necropolis of Saqqara, the Tomb of Mereruka, an important Egyptian royal officer, depicts servants force-feeding grains to geese in order to fatten them. These Saqqara reliefs are the earliest known depictions of goose fattening through the process of force-feeding or “gavage.”
The ancient Egyptians discovered that both geese and ducks overfed themselves in preparation for their long migratory journeys, often to a different continent, producing highly desirable goose meat and a naturally fattened liver. Once the delicacy of fattened geese was discovered, the ancient Egyptians took advantage of this natural process and began cultivating fattened geese through the practice of gavage.
The practice of goose fattening spread from Egypt through the eastern Mediterranean, and there are historical references documented by the Greek poets Homer and Cratinus, dating back to the eighth and fifth century BC.
Under the Roman Empire, the luxurious liver of fattened geese became the culinary focus, above and beyond the tasty goose meat. Until then, the fattened liver was simply a by-product of cultivating goose meat with high fat content. This was the beginning of modern foie gras preparation. The popularity of foie gras in Roman times reflects the growing interest in the culinary arts. Roman aristocrats enjoyed this delicacy during lavish banquets–an important part of their daily lives of conspicuous consumption.
When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Ashkenazi Jews retained the knowledge of how to make foie gras, and the practice later become a staple of Jewish aristocrats in Palestine.
The Ashkenazi Jews of Western and Central Europe carried their knowledge of goose fattening as they migrated to France and Germany, eventually settling along the Rhine. Jewish interest in foie gras makes sense because they used goose fat instead of lard, beef fat, or butter for cooking. The link between Jews and foie gras is backed by a long trail of literary evidence beginning in eleventh century medieval Europe.
The knowledge of foie gras production may have been brought to France centuries earlier; however, the delicacy was popularized in the seventeenth century by chefs associated with the French Court.
In the year 1788, the governor of Alsace traded a pate de foie gras with King Louis XVI for some real estate in Picardy. The Sun King was so enamored by the dish that he began introducing Strasbourg foie gras throughout Europe. This was the origin of how foie gras became associated with French food and culture as it still is today.
Very few ancient foie gras recipes have survived, but cookbooks with recipes for foie gras appear in Europe, and especially France in the 1500’s. The Art of Cooking, the only surviving ancient Roman cookbook dating back to the fourth or fifth century, references two recipes for foie gras. The number of foie gras recipes increased greatly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with recipes from the great chefs of France such as La Chapelle, Massaliot, Pierre Delune, La Varenne, Careme and Menon. The nineteenth century brought greater culinary sophistication and the birth of multiple foie gras enterprises in France, some which are still in business today.
La Cuisiniere Bourgeoise printed in 1746 gives a simple and rather short recipe for “Ragout de Foies gras.” The great Jules Gouffe however, in his 1867 book, Le Livre de la Grande Cuisine offers no less than fifteen ways of preparing foie gras. By that time, pâtés and terrines were in vogue among the upper classes. Le Cuisinier des Cuisiniers from 1853, offered no foie gras recipes, showing that foie gras was not for everyone. It was reserved for the elite and also limited to the areas of production because of the lack of refrigeration and slow transportation methods. In the late nineteenth century, foie gras production in France became a thriving industry making France the uncontested champion of this unique and luxurious food.