Compared with the birds we usually eat, the goose is more highly flavored, more evidently bony, and more protected with fat.
All the meat is dark and flavorful, but the fat is the wonderful thing, with its gutsy animal flavor and none of the refinement of good fresh butter or olive oil. Cooks who roast a goose for the first time are often worried by the large quantity of fat that appears in the pan,
but the meat itself isn’t fatty, and if it’s carefully prepared, you don’t end up eating any more fat than you do with other meat. Before the legs of a goose are fully cooked, the breast begins to dry and toughen.
To avoid that, a goose breast, like a duck breast, is often cooked separately from the legs, to just rare or medium-rare. Goose goes with sweet and acidic counterpoints, sometimes both together, including apples, prunes, and sauerkraut. In southwestern France, a center of goose eating, the main traditional cooking fat is a goose.
There and elsewhere goose is made into rillettes: the well-salted meat is cooked gently with its fat until it can be stirred to moist shreds. They’re better made from goose than from duck or pork.
Finest of all is the immortal form of a goose, confit—real confit, made with enough salt to preserve and transform it. The cut-up goose is rubbed with salt, garlic, pepper, herbs, and spices, and the salt is given a day or two to penetrate. Then the meat is cooked slowly in its own fat and preserved under the same fat, supplemented if needed by lard, so it survives for weeks without refrigeration (though the cold is a good idea). Only after a month is a characteristic flavor evident.
Duck and pork also make excellent confit, but not as special as the goose version. And goose meat is made into sausage, stuffed into the skin of the neck, cooked in goose fat, and put up with the rest (including the giblets) as confit. Still, the best part is the fat—confit fat is the most delicious fat of all for frying potatoes.
Fat keeps a goose warm and buoyant in water and carries it through the lean winter. Feeding for fat is taken to an extreme in the birds raised for foie gras, “fat liver”—honey-beige in color, extremely large, fatty, soft, mild, and highly delicious. The birds raised for foie gras have very thick, meaty breasts; on menus, half a breast from a foie gras bird is the magret. Geese gave the original foie gras
Duck foie gras, which some people like better, has largely replaced it because ducks are easier to raise and their livers fatten more quickly. Low-priced foie gras requires large-scale, semiautomated methods, with the ducks tightly confined in individual plastic crates—if foie gras is cheap, you know you shouldn’t eat it.
I’ve seen the force-feeding on small farms in southwestern France, where the birds are outdoors every day. Taken as a whole, the treatment was much, much more humane than the way industrial chickens or pigs are raised.
That’s not to say it was right and good. Very exceptionally, foie gras is produced only in autumn without force-feeding by relying on the birds’ natural urge to fatten themselves in preparation for winter. They eat at will. Obviously, the quantity of that foie gras will always be limited. But there’s regular goose liver, which is delicious in the same way as other poultry liver.
A wild goose is sleeker and more horizontal than the upright domestic goose, with its large rear. Dozens of breeds exist in the West and more elsewhere, especially in China, where the goose was domesticated centuries before it was in Europe.
Chinese and African geese are descended from the swan goose, a separate species. The wild goose native to Europe, the greylag, which is gray in color, gave rise to the European breeds. All the varied breeds are white or gray, or sometimes mixed in hybrids. While you may come across a farmer proud of a particular breed—Toulouse, Alsatian, Emden, Venetian, Chinese—no one breed seems to rise to the top.
What’s more important for the meat is that, although geese eat mostly grain, they’re outdoors on pasture. In any case, a goose, being weeks older than the other domesticated birds we cook, including most turkeys, is full of flavor, and it benefits from the tenderizing effects of braising, which allows varied accompaniments: bitter orange, sour cherries, boletes, olives.
Confit is the central flavor of garbure, a substantial cabbage soup from southwestern France, but the famous use for confit is in another dish from the region, cassoulet, which is named for the castle, the ceramic vessel in which it’s baked, a hand-thrown, wide truncated cone. Cassoulet, at least in theory, occurs in three distinct forms: those of Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, and Toulouse.
Richard Olney, in Simple French Food, impeccably describes one version, unnamed but seemingly the one from Carcassonne:
The beans are cooked apart, their flavor enhanced by prolonged contact with aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices; the mutton is cooked apart, slowly, the wine and other aromatic elements refining, enriching, or underlining its character; apart, the goose has long since been macerated in herbs and salt and subsequently preserved in its own fat; a good sausage is famously allied to witchcraft.
All of these separate products are then combined; a bit of catalytic goose fat—with the aid of gelatinous pork rind—binds them together in a velvet texture, and a further slow cookery process combines all the characters while a gratin, repeatedly basted, forms, is broken, re-forms, is rebroken, a single new savor moving into dominance, cloaking, without destroying, the autonomy of the primitive members.