Duck is turning up on more Victoria menus, from duck confit for breakfast to fried duck wings at the local pub
A crispy confit duck leg with Puy lentils is a classic French combination.
By CINDA CHAVICH
It’s no surprise that one of the world’s most celebrated chefs named one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants The Fat Duck.
Evoking both the nostalgia of nursery rhymes and that unctuous and unique treat known as “fat liver” (foie gras), the words waddle across the tongue and make us smile, our mouths watering at the thought of rare duck breasts, melting confit and crisp potatoes cooked in this tasty bird’s ample oils.
The dark, flavourful meat is rich and usually expensive, especially outside traditional duck-producing regions, which may be part of its cachet.
Duck breasts are a dime a dozen in the south of France – I remember joining a harvest dinner for workers in a Bordeaux vineyard where dozens of magret were grilled over big fires of smoldering vines, the way we might grill burgers for a casual barbecue. And while duck is still rather exotic on this side of the pond, its more popular than ever.
Until quite recently, most of the duck we consumed in Canada was at high-end restaurants or Chinese bbq joints, the former usually the fat breasts from Quebec’s Brome Lake and the latter a mahogany glazed bird, hanging by the neck in a Chinatown storefront.
But a new generation of chefs has democratized the duck, introducing the bird to diners in bold new ways. Here in Victoria that means Buck a Duck wing nights, creamy duck rillettes to slather on toast, and tender duck legs popping up on all kinds of casual menus.
FROM FARM TO PLATE
Traditionally, wherever you find foie gras production, you’ll find duck – whether it’s in the Dordogne region of southern France or the eastern townships of southern Quebec. Duck confit is a classic ingredient in French cassoulet, the tough legs slowly braised in duck fat until tender, with the more valuable breast (magret), sold to chefs.
In France, that breast comes from the fatter Moulard Duck but here in North America it’s likely a lankier Peking Duck (a.k.a Long Island Duck), a bird raised specifically for meat production (not foie gras).
Brome Lake Duck, from Knowlton, Quebec, has been raising and processing meat birds for more than 100 years, the standard for restaurant chefs and now available in supermarkets from coast to coast. Brome Lake specializes in young Peking cross ducks, six to seven weeks old (not foie gras production), and has recently launched a consumer line of frozen duck products under the Oh! Canard label.
Brome Lake Duck has vastly expanded its production, now raising 2.2 million ducks a year, which may be at least part of the reason why duck is finding more fans outside Quebec, and available at many restaurants and retailers.
Here on the west coast, the main duck and geese producer is Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry (FVSP) in Chilliwack. Their ducks are free-range, naturally raised birds, and slightly more expensive that their French-Canadian counterparts.
FVSP sells its duck and goose products at wholesale to restaurants and also has a farm store offering everything from duck burgers and lean ground duck to smoked duck breast and duck pepperoni.
But that’s the only B.C. duck you’ll likely find on local menus or at retail, because there’s no longer a facility on the island that processes ducks.
At The Village Butcher in Oak Bay, Mike Windle features Fraser Valley ducks. You’ll find whole ducks in the freezer, frozen Yarrow Meadow breasts, legs, even half-litre containers of duck fat to make confit at home.
“Duck fat is popular – people buy it like crazy,” says Windle who also sells house-made duck confit and smoked duck breast that’s ready-to-eat.
Or you can head to Haus Sausage for their jars of foie gras mousse or duck pate en croute, Fol Epi where they prepare duck and cranberry terrine, Parfait de Canard, duck rillette and foie gras mousse with black truffles, and have duck fat and Yarrow Meadows duck breasts in for sale in the freezer.
FROM QUACK TO TAIL
At the apex of this duck dynasty in Victoria is chef Jesse Cole at Little Jumbo. Duck is more than a menu item at this popular downtown speakeasy, Cole oversees a complete “duck program” in his restaurant kitchen, one that sees whole birds brown down into their many tasty parts, then cured, dried, cooked in sous vide baths or buckets of duck fat, braised for stocks and duck purees, or seared to pink perfection.
“I’ve always ordered whole ducks, the Fraser Valley Yarrow Meadows duck,” says Cole who served duck rillette with his own marmalade, duck liver and foie gras parfait, duck breast with fondant potatoes braised in duck fat, crispy smoked duck wings, and duck confit with creamy cabbage.
“We’re a small kitchen so we have to use everything,” says Cole of his a la cart duck dishes and Big Duck board, a whole duck in all of its guises, served on a platter for just $70.
“It’s a real bargain and people love to share it,” he says.
With its French pedigree, duck is always on the menu at The Courtney Room, Vis á Vis Bouchon and Brasserie L’Ecole. At AURA restaurant, the ocean-front room at the Inn at Laurel Point, the rare-cooked duck breast is rubbed in Asian spices with a carrot ginger puree and potatoes slow-cooked in healthy duck fat. Chef Tak Ito prefers the meaty duck from Brome Lake, birds weighing in at about 3.2 kg (about 7 pounds).
“These ducks are bigger than the usual Peking duck,” says Ito who also makes his own duck confit, rillettes and is experimenting with a new Brome Lake product, the “duck chop”.
Ito says classical French cooking calls for duck breast to be seared quickly, skin side down, in a hot pan, until just medium rare. But today he’s also experimenting with modern methods, slow cooking duck breast sous vide, or searing it slowly over low heat.
“Duck is always on our dinner menu,” says Ito.
At the other end of the duck-lover’s spectrum is The Ruby at Hotel Zed. Though rotisserie chicken is the mainstay of the poultry-driven menu at the popular café, they’re also serving a lot of duck.
“I came out of the world of fine dining so I know about duck,” says Ruby co-owner Chris Jones. “Serving duck was an opportunity to stay in the whole poultry wheelhouse, while offering something a little more sophisticated.”
And customers are keen, even those who might never risk ordering duck at a higher end restaurant. At The Ruby, the Brome Lake duck legs and wings on the menu go from breakfast to dinner, duck confit turning up alongside roasted potatoes, atop duck waffles and with truffle hollandaise in the Duck Confit Benny. The duck wings, with house slaw and duck jus, are a popular main course and the duck confit poutine, with shredded duck, cheese curds and the rich house-made gravy can easily become an addiction.
“Duck is something that people don’t expect in a place like this,” says Jones. “It’s exotic enough and rare enough that people will give it a try. And they love it.”
We’re all getting a taste for duck, learning about it’s healthy fat (lower in saturates than butter or lard and closer to olive oil in levels of healthy monounsaturates), and how delectable a potato can taste when it’s cooked in duck fat.
And anyone with the time and inclination, can make duck confit, a simple peasant solution to preserving duck for the winter. It takes a few days to salt and cure the legs with spices, then five or six hours to slowly braise them in simmering duck fat in the oven. But once cooked and preserved beneath a layer of duck fat, this duck confit is a treat you can keep in the fridge for weeks, and pull out to add to traditional white bean cassoulet, pile onto a baguette, or sear for hassle-free fine dining at home.
I love duck confit with beans or lentils and spicy sausage. I buy Chinese BBQ duck to shred and wrap in rice paper rolls with cucumber and rice noodles, or to make into duck and hoisin sauce “quesadillas”, grilled in small flour tortillas with fresh cilantro and mozzarella.
Duck is rich – a tart fruity sauce is the perfect foil. Think rhubarb and red wine, balsamic blueberry, blackberry or cranberry and port reductions to drizzle over crisply seared pink duck breasts.
Duck fat is liquid gold to the home cook – flavourful, rich and great for sautéing potatoes or roasting vegetables. Duck fat is popular in French and Hungarian cooking, superior to lard, and when flavoured with herbs, stands in for butter to smear over bread or crostini toasts.
There’s a layer of fat covering every duck breast, so the trick is to score the skin and cook it skin side down until the fat is rendered and the skin is crisp. You can serve duck breast rare, like steak, or cook it low and slow until well done.
Either way, dining on duck is getting easier to do or, as they say, duck soup!