When it comes to classic French fine dining, a dish containing some form of foie gras is never far away. And yet few ingredients are likely to cause more controversy. Its means of production, by gavage (young ducks are force fed using a pipe or funnel to engorge the liver) horrifies many and numerous animal rights groups have called for it to be banned. But foie gras is firmly ingrained in the history of cooking (the practice is thought to have begun some 5,000 years ago in Egypt) and this luxury ingredient is loved by gastronomes all over the world.
Many people who eat foie gras acknowledge that it isn't an ethically sound ingredient, yet they have long been seduced by its taste. For foie gras has a unique, decadent flavour and texture; somewhere between liquid and solid, rich and buttery, with a velvety smooth finish. For those who can't resist, it is perhaps best justified as an occasional indulgence.
The three Michelin-starred chef Bruno Menard seems to agree. He conducted a masterclass dedicated to the ingredient on Wednesday morning and served up a foie gras-themed dinner the following evening (featuring dishes such as foie gras flan with Tonka nut).
Menard is known for his neo-French style; he likes cooking with fresh, seasonal Japanese produce, but will prepare them using methods inspired by classic French techniques. He also champions the "cuisine du terroir": the idea that food grown in a certain region is imparted with a unique flavour, due to the climate, soil, weather and growing conditions.
Interestingly, he said that these days he is happy to use frozen foie gras in his restaurant. "The decision to start flash-freezing foie gras, 10 or so years ago, was a revolution in the business. Doing this seals in the flavour, preserves the texture and helps to slow down the process of oxidisation. It is now possible to get hold of really outstanding frozen produce." All of which is good news for foie gras fans living miles from France.
Because of the richness of the ingredient, when serving foie gras Menard stressed that it was important to balance the flavours in the dish. "You need harmony; a little sweetness, slight acidity, a bitter edge and, of course, saltiness." Menard also said the recipes he provided were intended "as a base only. Feel free to do things your way; use your imagination, use your heart. That is what cooking is all about".
For those that feel they need a little more guidance than that, his recipe for smoked foie gras custard with sorrel espuma is below, and would make an impressive dinner party starter.
Smoked foie gras custard with sorrel espuma
For the foie gras:
4 x 100g pieces foie gras 150ml chicken stock 20g cream 40g milk 1 egg
For the sorrel espuma:
300g sorrel (rocket could be used as an alternative) 350ml chicken stock 320ml cream 2 tsp egg white powder (optional) salt and pepper wood chips
Place the foie gras on a cooling rack or tray with perforated holes. Scatter the wood chips over the base of a deep roasting dish. Carefully set fire to the chips, leave the flames to die out and create smoke. Quickly place the rack with the foie gras on top of the roasting tray, top with a lid or wrap tightly with foil and leave for 15 minutes. For an intensely smoky flavour, repeat this process again.
Warm the chicken stock. Place the foie gras in a blender, add a ladleful of stock and blend. Pour in the rest of the stock, followed by the cream, milk and egg, blending well. Season with salt and pepper and pass the mixture through a fine sieve - it will have a thin liquid consistency.
Pour into four small containers, such as espresso cups. Cover tightly with cling film and steam for 15 minutes. You can do this in a steamer oven set at 85¿C or on the hob in a steamer basket. When the foie gras is ready, it should have the consistency of creme brûlée - set with a slight wobble. The custards can be cooked ahead of time and served at room temperature.
To prepare the sorrel espuma, place the sorrel leaves in a blender with the cold chicken stock. Blend well and pass through a fine sieve into a bowl. If you have an espuma gun, stir in the cream and egg white powder (if using) and transfer to the gun canister. Charge with one gas cartridge and top each custard with the sorrel mousse just before serving. In the absence of an espuma gun, whip the cream to soft peaks, before folding into the sorrel liquid. When you are ready to serve, froth up the mixture using a hand blender before spooning a small amount over each custard.