Wild Foie Gras is Real


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wild duck livers, fatty on left, lean on right
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Sometimes nature presents you with something so special you have no choice but to bow down to the ingredient and present it as purely as you can. I know, Jaded Ones: You’ve heard this mantra aped by hundreds of chefs hundreds of times — “honor the protein,” and such. It’s a cliche. But in this case it’s warranted.

I present to you wild foie gras. Yes, it exists. Under certain circumstances, wild ducks and geese will indeed gorge themselves far beyond their normal nutritional needs, to the point where they develop a fat layer comparable to that seen on a domestic duck, loads of fat around their gizzards and guts — and, most importantly, livers that develop into the lovely wobbly bit you see at left in the picture. Doctors call the condition steatosis, in which liver cells accumulate lipids. I call it yummy.

Not all ducks seem to do this. You will rarely see a diver duck this fat, and you will never see a snow goose this sclerotic. Mostly you see it in seed-loving ducks: Mallards, gadwall, wigeon, green-winged teal and most of all in the northern pintail, anas acuta.

This liver came from a pintail, a hen I shot on Opening Sunday at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Maxwell. Even before I finished plucking this bird I knew I had something special: It was as fat as a domestic, and since I’d shot it in the head, there was no meat damage. Once I opened it up, I saw fat around the guts and a glob coating the gizzard. A good sign.

When I saw the liver, I actually gasped — it was exactly the color of foie gras. Understand that you just don’t see livers this fatty very often; a wild foie turns up maybe once or twice a season, tops. How fatty are we talking? Look at the other liver in the picture: It came from another pintail I shot that day.

fatty wild duck livers on a plate
Photo by Hank Shaw

Getting a wild foie is reason to rejoice. Especially for me. You see, I normally hate the texture of liver. Yes, I eat lots of livers throughout the year, but I mostly grind them into sausage, like my Italian mazzafegati, or mash them into a ravioli filling. I am particularly fond of a savory liver creme caramel, too. But straight-up liver? Not for me.

Yet I do like foie gras, even though I know that the practice of force-feeding the ducks and geese, called gavage, is questionable. That tube does hurt the birds a little, studies show, but not so much as the animal rights people would have you believe. There is a Spanish producer, Pateria de Sousa, that makes an exquisite foie without gavage by laying out lots and lots of figs, acorns, lupini beans and olives for their geese to eat in fall. The Spanish foie is not so large as French force-fed foie, but it did win a blind taste test in France in 2006. De Sousa’s foie has become the darling of the food world.

The reason the Spanish method works is the same reason we hunters occasionally see our wild foie gras: Waterfowl instinctively gorge in late summer and autumn, first to prep for the migration south — often a flight of more then 2,000 miles — and then to recover from that long journey. The domestic Spanish geese (which are a cousin of our wild specklebelly geese here) are slaughtered right after they’ve gorged for their “migration.”

Our wild foie is largely a product of two things: Waterfowl recovering from their migrations — California is a wintering ground for ducks and geese — and the rice industry. Ducks eat what’s around them. One study of pintail feeding behavior done in Kern County, about 200 miles south of the rice fields, shows that during the hunting season pintails there eat mostly swamp timothy and barnyard grass, supplemented by midge larvae. Pintails that far south do not put on the fat our ducks do.

Another study — conducted where we hunt, in rice country north of Sacramento — found that pintails were getting 97 percent of their food from plants, as opposed to 72 percent in Kern, and that close to 99 percent of the northern pintails’ plant diet was rice.

A hen pintail
photo by J.M. Garg courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rice is extremely high in energy; it’s the pintail equivalent of eating junk food. Rice is so full of nutrients that the birds, which, like many omnivores (humans included) engage their “thrifty gene.” This gene tells the body to store as much energy as possible because the animal is programmed to live in a feast-or-famine world. Incidentally, teal, wigeon and gadwall do the same thing in the rice fields — as do specklebelly geese, the cousins of those Spanish foie geese. They’ll literally become flying butterballs.

The best study on the eating habits of pintails shows that the birds shift to invertebrates (bugs and shrimpy things) late in the hunting season, so they can boost their protein intake while they get ready to breed; this can make the birds taste slightly fishy. The study also shows that hens stay fatter longer than drakes, a fact I’ve seen consistently in the marshes.

Bottom line for hunters: If you want to eat fat ducks and get a chance to eat some wild, natural foie gras, shoot as many pintails as you can from October through early December.

I can hear you thinking: All this is very nice, Hank, but how did that liver taste? I felt that I needed to cook it simply. I got a frying pan screaming hot and added some fat I’d rendered from elsewhere on this same duck. I seared the liver hard for 30 seconds on a side, then sprinkled some Italian fleur de sel on it. Alongside went some balsamic vinegar reduced to a syrup.

seared wild duck liver with balsamic vinegar
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

It was the first liver I’d ever met that I liked on its own. Crispy, soft, meaty, fatty. Maybe it was the fact that this morsel — just three bites at best — was so special it clouded my thinking. Maybe it was the salty sweetness of the Italian salt, the sweet sourness of the balsamic. But I don’t think so.

If there was ever a reason for a foodie to take up hunting, this is it. Wild foie exists. It’s out there in the marshes. You just have to find it.

* * *

NOTE: To all those who want to fight the eternal foie gras battle on this site, take it somewhere else. I am writing about a natural phenomenon in wild ducks, not about the 4,500-year-old practice of fattening the livers of domestic geese. Got it? Good.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. If I’d seen that foie gras liver in a bird, I’d have thought there was something wrong with it and thrown it out! So, I’m glad to have read this – very informative. Recently got a gorgeous liver from the first antelope of the season. It was delectable with just a dusting of seasoned flour and fried quickly in a hot pan with bacon grease. But then, I love the taste of liver.

  2. Matt: Nice job on the terrine – not one of my “quick and easy” dishes. Never put the livers in for “interior garnish,” but that is a great idea!

    Cork: Good point. No doubt some Egyptian 4,500 years ago noticed that the geese fattening themselves on kamut or whatever had tastier livers. The rest is history.

    Exploded: Try the People of Walmart first. I bet they have steatosis in spades…

    Kristina: Now yer talkin’

    Andrew: I too have NEVER seen a fat wild pigeon. Even domestic squab don’t have much fat on them, and they are not allowed to fly much.

  3. Hank —

    I’ve never seen an actual fat pigeon, as in “lined with fat.” The closest I’ve come to it was with the liver birds, which I shot in June, and they only had a small amount on them, with nothing in the body cavity. I would imagine that with the non-migratory habit, the metabolism of the bird is always running full tilt; thus the crop full of grain not lending itself to body fat.

    Beyond that, the birds here survive in weather that falls to about -52 C, which is the coldest I’ve seen it. They must burn incredible amounts of energy to survive in that weather. The liver birds referred to tasted markedly different from normal — way milder — when I shot them in June; one would wonder if the nicer weather destresses the birds and allows the metabolism to pull back a bit.

  4. Really interesting post! I loved learning about how the Spaniards are doing foie too.
    One thing that struck me was the comment about the rice fields. I was recently in Cambodia where most rice production is done in a commercial way, with pesticides. However, some small producers (including some local schools) are growing rice organically and they ALL keep ducks around the rice fields. They say that the ducks are critical to the organic production cycle. I have to say, those were some fat and happy ducks and this post has made me start to think about their livers…

  5. Brilliant! This makes me want to try it with people. I guess there are lucky animals in nature that just get FED.

  6. This is fantastic, Hank. The next time those tree-hugging PETA crazies start up on the fois gras ban again, they should read this. Given the chance, the geese actually gorge themselves. Who knew?

  7. This is a great post Hank! I took two Canadian geese here in Minnesota last weekend and made your terrine recipe. I put the livers in at different places to add some structure and diversity to the creation. I mentioned to my wife during assembly how different the livers looked at the time as one was a little lighter in color. Maybe I had a little of your wild foie gras going on?

    In any regard…..the terrine turned out great!

  8. Reminds me how much is now practice in farming, but was learned and then reinforced from the wild as humans started and expanded animal husbandry in contrast to hunting.

  9. I know I’ve been living under a rock when I find out “honor the protein” is a cliche — and I’ve never heard of it.

    That fois gras sure is a fine illustration, though.

  10. This was terrific. I teach children about the wetlands and we often talk about the rice that is left after harvest being an important food source for migrating waterfowl here on the Pacific Flyway. Guess I didn’t realize just how good a source it was. Thank you for the info on the Pintail studies and about diet change in breeding waterfowl. Very interesting.

  11. Bushman: According to the studies, green-winged teal do indeed follow a similar diet plan. I don’t think the rice is the key here, I think it is grain in general. Corn might do it, and I am pretty sure barley or acorns would.

    Steve-Anna: The wild foie was nowhere near as rich or smooth as real foie gras. Think of it as a hybrid between a regular liver and real foie. Still a bit grainy live regular liver, but far smoother than normal, and less, well, “livery.”

    Dave: If you get one with a liver like that, please let me know! I would be fascinated to see if wild rice can do the same thing…

    Josh: I thought you’d like that one. I wrote down the feed specifically in case someone, ahem, was interested in repeating the experiment here.

    Andrew: This is NOT what real foie gras looks like, although it is the same basic color. Real foie is very large and looks less like a liver and more like a short, fat sausage. Good to know about the pigeon livers! We shoot barn pigeons every year, although I’ve not yet seen a fatty one yet.

    And yes, you can keep a liver from a hung bird, so long as it was hung only 2-3 days maximum.

  12. Wow!

    I had no idea what foie gras looked like; I’ll keep a better eye on my ducks!

    I’d seen something like it in pigeon livers that I ate on a whim after a few clean head shots left the guts untrammeled. The livers were absolutely stunning and melted like butter. But I guess, given your explanation, it would make sense: I got a handful of grain out of every crop, including peas and canola. That would do it.

    Can you keep the liver out of a hung bird?

  13. Hmmm….this year I’ve been hunting ducks quite a bit in the St. Lawrence Valley of NY. The marshes are filled with wild rice, but I imagine that food source would not yield the same results as domestic rice delivers to ducks feeding in Cal. Having said that, I’m going to pay close attention to the condition of any duck livers I get this weekend.

  14. I’m still left curious how this fois gras compared to others, since I would describe good fois gras, in general, as “Crispy, soft, meaty, fatty.” When simply prepared.

    Can you please say more about the wild fois gras taste? The best fois gras I had, BTW, was in a tiny town called Ax Les Thermes at the Hotel Terminus:


    The windows of the rooms overlook the River Ariege, and I had to imagine that the fois gras I ate came from one of the ducks gliding past. I admit I was a bit taken aback when the chef told me the fois gras was topped with “cerises” (cherries) which I understood to be “souris” (mice!). I would have eaten it anyway it was so good ; )

  15. A wild foie gras? Must be the golden fleece of hunting. I fear there’s an even slimmer chance at such a morsel for us East Coasters. The ducks might have flooded corn, but we have little rice production (with the exception of the Cape Fear area in NC). Very interesting your link to the pintail foraging study. Though almost everyone (me included) consider green-winged teal to be among the very finest eating birds, my wife thinks they taste fishy. Now I have to go back and check my logbook to see when I’m shooting most of my teal. I suspect it’s later in the season. Maybe teal are following the same dietary calendar as the pintails.

  16. Very interesting. I don’t typically care for liver either. But I did have foie gras once in culinary school and now I understand the obsession.