Monday, 18 May 2009

Le Canard de Barbarie - Muscovy Duck

The Muscovy duck was brought to France in the 16th century and despite it's name (Muscovy means from the Moscow region) the duck is native to South America. It's known in France as Canard de Barbarie – Barbary being the region of North Africa on the Mediterranean coast between Egypt and Gibraltar which was used as a base for pirates from the 16th to 19th centuries. Perhaps it was given this name to signify that the duck came from foreign climes. It's not clear either why this duck acquired the name of Muscovy in English – one theory has it that the Muscovy Company traded these ducks to Europe after 1550, another connects the species with the Muisca, a Native American nation in today's Colombia and believes that the Muscovy's name is a corruption of theirs.

The Muscovy is bred in Les Landes and is popular as they are large birds with stronger-tasting meat – sometimes compared to roast beef – than the usual domestic ducks which are the descendants of the Mallard. In fact the Muscovy is the only domesticated duck that is not descended from the Mallard. The meat is lean, unlike the fatty meat of mallard-derived ducks, its leanness and tenderness being often compared to that of veal. The Muscovy Duck is also much heavier than that of most other domestic ducks, which make it ideal for the dinner table.

Other duck breeds in France are the Canard Nantais (the Nantes Duck - originally from France’s Vendée region, an area once known for its marshland, long since drained, where migratory birds would make an annual stop-over), the Canard Rouennais (the Rouen Duck - the domesticated variety of a now-rare mallard variety) and the Canard Challans (the Challans Duck). Legend has it that the duck of Challans originated in 1650 from a cross between wild ducks and ducks brought over to France by Spanish sailors. Sometimes known as a Black Barbary, the Challans was once the preserve of French Kings, was served to Hiro Hito the Emperor of Japan and graced the wedding feast of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. It has also been served for over 100 years as the speciality of La Tour d'Argent, one of the most famous Parisian restaurants, known as "Canard au Sang".

Confit is a speciality of the Aquitaine and is the French for “preserved” - Confit of Duck is duck legs that have been cured (partly or fully) in salt, then marinated and poached in duck fat, typically with garlic and other herbs.

Confit de Canard

Duck Legs, with thighs (one or two per person)

Coarse salt, pepper, thyme, bay, etc.

Extra duck fat (you can strip the carcass rather than buy fat).

The classic preparation uses a fattened bird for use as fois gras. Slowly cooking the meat in its own fat keeps the flavours and juices from escaping, while the salt and gentle heat convert tough collagens into delicate gelatines which makes the meat moist and mouth wateringly tender.

Mix coarse salt with an almost equal quantity of herbs and spices. Rub the flesh and skin of each leg with this mixture. Leave covered in a cool place for 12-48 hours. (The cure can be varied: try dried tangerine peel or crushed juniper berries in place of thyme, for example.) Wipe the excess salt from the meat with kitchen paper towel. Lay the legs out, skin-side-up, on a baking tray with sides deep enough to catch the fat, and sear in a hot oven until the skin is nicely brown (about 15 minutes). Pack the legs in a casserole; add the fat rendered from the legs, and sufficient extra fat to cover the meat - it doesn't matter if the legs stick out. Put the covered casserole in a slow oven) for 90 minutes. The legs can be kept, in their fat, in the refrigerator for several weeks, or used immediately. Try to give them a few days for the flavour to develop, before succumbing to temptation.

To serve - remove the duck from its fat, and lay it out on a deep-sided baking tray. (Warm the casserole if necessary until the fat melts.) Cook in a hot oven for about 15 minutes, transfer the legs to a warmed serving platter, draining excess fat off each one.

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