Foie Gras Terrine for the Holidays

It is hard to image the holiday season in France without foie gras.  During an October visit to Maison Lafitte Foie Gras in the village of Montaut (note:  our friends who live in Montaut would undoubtedly correct me on this point…by the traditional definition, Montaut is a Bourg, not a village, the difference being that a Bourg has a doctor.   With a population of only 600 however, feels  distinctly like a village) in France’s Chalosse region, General Manager Fabian CHEVALIER told me that his annual production cycle was driven by the sales demands of December, when a majority of the year’s output would be sold.  Both for Christmas and New Years, foie gras in all its forms is a must.   However, working with foie gras can be a daunting prospect for those who haven’t had the experience.   And given the cost of good quality fresh foie gras, mistakes can be expensive.  Fortunately, if you follow a few simple steps carefully, a great foie gras terrine is really not that complicated.

Each year at Le Pichet, we serve foie gras in terrine as a special for the Holidays.  But you might say “foie gras seems too fancy and expensive for Le Pichet” and you would generally be right.  However, given the importance of foie gras to the season in France, we make an exception in December.

A terrine of whole foie gras is considered the “ne plus ultra” of foie gras consumption by the French and I have to agree.   I have never found another way of serving foie gras that better highlights the intense flavor and rich texture to the liver.  Of course an excellent terrine is impossible without an excellent liver and any flaw in the raw liver will be instantly visible in the terrine (I could write at length on this subject after my meeting with Monsieur Chevalier in Montaut…this topic is of paramount importance at a quality house like Lafitte.  Monsieur Chevalier stressed that only ducks raised in clean, spacious enclosures with liberal access to pasture, ducks that are gently cared for and fed to minimize stress and that are slaughtered in a humane, low stress environment, produce livers of the very best quality).  So the importance of starting with a liver of the highest possible quality cannot be overstated.

The two main producers of foie gras in the US are Hudson Valley Foie Gras in upstate New York and Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras in northern California.   In general, I prefer the foie gras from Hudson Valley for its dense flavor, firm texture and minimum loss of fat during cooking.  This year we heard about a producer in Oregon who is rumored to have spent time working at Hudson Valley before starting his own enterprise in the northwest.  K.C. Berman’s farm in Prinville Oregon, and currently his foie gras is only available in Seattle from Select Gourmet Foods in Kirkland, who sell it under their own label.   Mohamed, the owner of SGF really talks up the quality of this foie gras and we like to use Northwest products whenever possible, so we decided to give it a try.

My first impression of the raw product was not entirely encouraging.  We purchased eight whole livers, each weighing about 1.5 pounds, and several of these were either a bit dark in color or had noticeable bruising, which, from my point of view, is not a good sign.  However, Mohamed assured me that the slightly darker color was to be expected because the animals are fed on a porridge of cooked corn as opposed to dried feed.  I am not a farmer, so I can’t say whether this makes sense or not, but the rich, gamy smell of the livers gave me confidence.

The basic method for making terrine of whole foie gras is very simple.  The foie gras is carefully cleaned to remove all traces of blood as well as all the veins and connective tissue while keeping the two lobes of the liver intact.   Then the livers are seasoned and marinated overnight.   The livers are then put into the backing dishes or terrines and gently pressed into shape.

The terrine is baked in a very low oven in a bain marie until an internal temperature of 140 degrees F is reached…remember that your stem thermometer registers the temperature at the little dimple about half way down its length, not at the tip.  For accurate temping, it is important to get that dimple right in the middle of your terrine.   And for a project like foie gras, with a lot of $$ in raw ingredients on the line, it never hurts to calibrate your thermometer before beginning the baking process.

Sorry for that last photo, which is a bit blurry, but it is the only one I have of the terrine right out of the oven..  Anyway, the terrine is then cooled overnight.  Of course there are a good deal of specifics about each step, and slight differences depending on how the terrine will be served (in the dish?  Turned out and sliced?)as well as some tricks that help get a better result and a few pitfalls to avoid.  But in general, if you are someone who excels at carefully and exactly following instructions, it is not too complicated.  My recipe is available in the recipe archive.

Our terrines using the Oregon foie gras turned out very nicely.  It is true that, compared to Hudson Valley foie gras, and to a top quality French foie gras, the color of the Oregon liver was a bit darker and the texture was a bit less firm.  However, the flavor was excellent.  We served the terrine with an apple-thyme compote and spice roasted almonds.  Can’t wait until next year!

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