Fat duck liver terrine was love at first bite. The first time I tasted it I was lucky to discover a superior product made by a friend’s uncle, duck farmer. Afterwards, having tasted inferior copies even in decent-looking restaurants, I started to assume it was extremely difficult to prepare. This was before I made it on my own and realised that the aesthetic side wasn’t easy to achieve for a me at least (as you can see above…), but even the clumsiest home terrine often tasted much better than some excellent-looking, but undeniably low-quality specimens served by professional chefs, not to mention supermarket-bought jars.
Fat liver production dates as far back as Ancient Rome, when birds were fed figs, and the method was so widely practised that the latin “ficum” is a root word for French “foie” or Italian “fegato” (both meaning “liver”). Until now figs or fig jam are considered good company for fat duck liver. Even though goose fat liver is also popular in some countries (such as Hungary), in France the duck liver prevails and it’s even difficult to find a goose liver, raw or transformed.
Fat liver can be prepared in many ways, the most famous two being very simple, quickly fried hot “steaks” and more elaborate and complex “terrine”, usually (though not always) cooked in hot water bath, and served cold and definitely my favourite. The terrine is not difficult to make, but it takes several days, so if one wants to follow the French trend and serve it for Christmas, it should be bought at least four days before being served.
Most people don’t dare preparing fat liver at home. I was also afraid of experimenting with such an expensive product, but, encouraged by my mother-in-law whose terrines were always fabulous, I made it one day and was genuinely surprised it was actually good. As I have mentioned above, excellent visual results are difficult to obtain (at least for some cooks…), but, even though it takes time and requires patience, a good-tasting terrine is not difficult to prepare.
The only difficult part in the preparation is deveining, though many butchers sell it already deveined. The liver has big and small veins and the more of these are removed, the better. The trick is to find the right compromise between removing as many veins as possible and not tearing the liver apart in hundred pieces.
Fat liver terrine recipes are galore and mine is loosely based on mixed sources, such as my mother-in-law’s advice or tips from internet and cookery books. Different spices and/or aromatic alcohols or even fruits/vegetables can be used (I have had fantastic terrine with artichoke for example!), but even made with simple tawny port terrine is really good and even salt and pepper are sufficient, as long as the raw product’s quality is good.
If you buy fat liver for the first time, the most important thing is the weight. The heavier the liver is the worst the quality. A good duck fat liver should weigh between 400 and 500 grams. If it’s a bit heavier, it’s not important, but never buy the huge 700 g ones! (I have seen such livers too). Then try to buy the product which is not too soft (delicately pressed it should “bounce” slightly but definitely not leave traces) and not bruised. Of course the fresher it is the better and good French chefs recommend even frozen product if we are not sure about the liver’s freshness.
Some friends have already asked me, so I prefer to warn you : I have never cooked goose liver, which is bigger, has a different texture and taste, so I have no idea how to prepare it. All the tips and advice concern fat duck liver.
What to serve it with? As I have mentioned above, foie gras is often served with fig jam and also with sweet onion jam or fruit chutneys. The simplest and often the best way to enjoy it without hiding its delicate flavours is to serve it with good quality sea salt and crunchy “airy” French-style bread. This is the way I prefer it but I also like it sometimes with tangy jams (such as violet plum jam).
Foie gras is usually served as a starter, on individual plates in slices (which should never ever be squashed and spread on the bread like a vulgar supermarket pâté!), together with toasts, but it also makes wonderful finger food when served on mini toasts. Good quality – flaked or grainy – salt sprinkled over a piece of the terrine or a toast is the ultimate touch.
Every meal and every time of the day is perfect for foie gars. A late Sunday breakfast is one of my favourite moments to enjoy it…
Traditionally sweetish sauternes wines are advised with fat liver, but I have it only with dry wines. (Don’t be ashamed to try it with red wine! Many people living in south-western France, famous for its fat duck livers, prefer it with red wine).
good tweezers (the best would be special fish bones removal tweezers, but good eyebrow tweezers should do)
a “terrine”/pâté dish (with a cover and, ideally with a fitting lid, but tit’s not obligatory)
a cooking thermometer (this is not obligatory, but makes the cooking time control much easier)
Preparation: about 4 days (2,5 hours + 24 hours in the fridge + 30-40 minutes cooking+minimum 48 hours in the fridge before serving)
Ingredients (serves 6 – 8):
1 whole duck liver (see the tips above)
10 tablespoons armagnac or another aromatic alcohol of your choice (e.g. port), but alcohol is not necessary really
about 1/2 litre water
about 1/2 litre milk
salt (15 g/about 3 teaspoons per kilo)
Take the liver out of the fridge.
Let it warm up to the room temperature.
Divide the two lobes and carefully take out first of all the main veins and as many small ones as you manage.
Put it into tepid mixture of water and milk for 2 hours.
Take it out, pat dry. Put the first part of the liver in the terrine dish.
Season with salt, pepper and half of the Armagnac (if your terrine is small but tall, you might have to divide the seasoning into three portions and make three layers of the liver; in this case start with a third of all those).
Put the second part, season once more (if you have three layers, place a third layer and season once more) and slightly press.
Cover the dish (otherwise it will change its colours to gray!) and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.
Preheat the oven at 130°C/266°F.
Take the liver out of the fridge.
Put some hot water (80°C/176°F) in a big shallow dish, put the dish with the liver (make sure it’s at room temperature) inside, so that the water covers 3/4 of the dish’s height.
Cook in the oven for around 40 minutes, checking the central temperature of the liver.
It shouldn’t have more than 65°C-70°C/about 149°F-158°F inside in the centre, while being taken out of the oven (depending on how pink you want it to be inside).
Take it out and let it cool.
Discard most of the fat formed at the top of the terrine.
Press it slightly (or press with something heavy, such as a wooden board; the best thing is to have a special terrine dish with a special adjusted board).
(You can also reserve the fat discarded from the terrine, press the terrine with a board, leave in the fridge for 12 hours and then and pour the fat back on top. This will create a nice yellowish layer on top. I never bother doing this.)
Put into the fridge for at least 48 hours (this half-cooked terrine should be consumed within four-five days after being cooked).
Keep in covered (otherwise it will dry and the colour will change to gray).
Take out of the fridge about 30 minutes before serving.
Serve it either in individual slices with bread/toast aside or as finger food on small toast.
Dipping the knife in hot water makes the cutting easier.