This French word translates literally as fat liver. Foie gras (fwah grah) is the fattened and enlarged liver of goose or duck. It's very rich and delicious with a smooth silky texture: a real gastronomic treat. Raw foie gras can be seared, or made into a terrine, pâté (containing at least 80% pureed goose liver) or mousse (containing at least 55% goose liver).

The process of getting foie gras is only slightly more horrifying than any other method of commercially raising and slaughtering animals for food. The fowl are force-fed and fattened for some months, without being allowed to exercise, resulting in a huge fatty liver. Once the bird is killed, the liver is removed and soaked overnight in milk, water or port, after which it's ready for the cook to work their magic.

Raw foie gras is a specialty of Alsace and Perigord in France, but is not always easy to come by elsewhere. It's only recently become available to me here in Ontario because a Quebec farm has started to produce it, and sneff tells me he can only get it pasteurized in Australia. Which is too bad, for he's never had this unctuous delicacy at its most delicious.

I remember the first time I ever had seared foie gras. I, like many, associated foie gras with pâté, and I wasn't sure what I would get when I ordered seared foie gras. What arrived was a disc of meltingly silky deliciousness with an crispy browned crust. I swooned at the taste, texture, and luxuriousness of this dish. Since then, if there's foie gras on the menu, I have to try it. It's usually served as an appetizer, because it's so rich, but sometimes a slice of foie gras lies temptingly on top of a steak, slowly melting and mingling with the meat juices. Yum.

Seared Foie Gras with Port-Poached Pear

This is a surprisingly easy but very luxurious appetizer.

First, make the poached pears. I use half a pear per person, generally a bartlett. Peel the pear, cut it in half, remove the core and stem with the point of a small sharp knife, place in a small pot, and cover with port - late bottled vintage is very nice. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about half an hour, turning the pear after 15 minutes, until the pear is soft and the port is reduced to a thick syrup. Cool and refrigerate. (You can prepare this up to 2 days in advance.)

If you're lucky, like me, you have a good butcher who will take a huge lobe of foie gras and cut you off slices about 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick, so you don't have to break the bank and buy the whole thing. (Foie gras is expensive.) Otherwise, you're going to have huge lump - possibly even two lobes - of foie gras to deal with. Should that be the case, use the point of a sharp knife to remove any visible veins and cut out any bitter green parts you can see. Slice as many pieces as you need, and if you have extra, make a terrine, recipe below.

When you're ready to make your appetizer, remove the pears from the syrup and slice thinly; fan out on a small plate. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat till very hot but not smoking, then add the foie gras slices. Season with salt and pepper and sear for 30-60 seconds, turning once. Don't leave them in the pan too long or you'll end up with a pool of very expensive fat.

Arrange the seared foie gras on the plates atop the pear. Add the port syrup to the frying pan and cook, stirring, for about a minute to reduce and warm. Pour the syrup over the foie gras and pear and serve.

A traditional accompaniment to foie gras is a sweet wine such as Sauternes; an ice wine is a good alternative.

Terrine of Foie Gras with Ice Wine Gelée

Best to make this with a whole lobe of foie gras, if you can; this recipe is for 2 lbs (1 kg) of foie gras.

Preheat the oven to 250°F (120°C).

To prepare the foie gras, use the point of a sharp knife to remove any visible veins and cut out any bitter green parts you can see. Try to keep the lobe whole as much as possible, but don't worry if bits fall off; you can pack them into the terrine as well. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and Armagnac and pack into a loaf pan, pressing lightly into the corners and to remove any air pockets. Cover completely with tin foil and place in a roasting pan; pour in boiling water till it reaches halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the gelée. Pour 1-1/2 cups (175 ml) ice wine (or any sweet wine) into a small pot and sprinkle with 1 tsp (5 ml) gelatine. Heat gently till gelatine is completely dissolved, stirring occasionally. Pour into a plastic-wrap lined square pan and refrigerate at least 4 hours, till hardened. Cut into squares to serve.

Remove the loaf pan from the bain-marie and let cool to room temperature, then unwrap and pour any fat into a container; let settle so the fat will rise to the top. Gently pour the fat back into the terrine to cover the foie gras.

Cut a piece of cardboard to fit onto the top of the foie gras in the loaf pan. Cover the cardboard with plastic wrap, put it on top of the foie gras, weigh it down with cans, and refrigerate overnight. When ready to serve, turn the terrine out onto a plate. Scrape off any fat, cut into slices with a warm knife, garnish with ice wine gelee cubes, and serve with crispy toasts. Eat, and swoon.