Chef Anthony Demetre shares the British passion for duck, whether he's eating it or cooking it. Gaby Huddart went to west London to discover his fair ways with fowl.
The British public is in the middle of a love affair with duck. "They order it more than beef, lamb or any other meat or poultry, and just can't seem to get enough of it," says Anthony Demetre, head chef of the one-Michelin-starred Putney Bridge restaurant in London. "Whether it's because of recent food scares, I don't know. But I do know that when it's on the menu it flies out the door."
Demetre's order book proves his point. Year-round, in order to meet demand, every week he has to buy in 50 farmed ducks, each making two portions, from his Hereford-based supplier, English Natural Food. And every week of the winter game season he also buys in a further 100 wild ducks (which make one or two portions each) from Chef Direct, which sources them from shoots across the country.
Not that he's complaining. No, Demetre regards it as a joy to work with duck and, indeed, shares in the nation's passion. "When I go out for dinner, I'll usually choose duck, as I love to eat it," he says. "The flavour and texture are so good. And I really enjoy cooking with it, because it has to be the most versatile of all meats - you can use duck in a huge variety of different ways."
Arguably, Demetre's best-known duck dish is his breast of duck lacquered with blossom honey and Szechwan pepper and served with caramelised celeriac pur‚e, roast pear, leg confit and a young leaf salad. This has become Putney Bridge's signature dish and is rarely absent from the menu, though the garnish may change from time to time.
For the dish, he uses the Trelough breed, which are orchard-reared ducks, fed on cereal and, during the fruit season, apples and pears. They are slaughtered at between 12 and 18 weeks of age and generally arrive at the restaurant weighing between four and six-and-a-half pounds.
He says: "I like the Trelough breed because I think it has a more refined, sweeter and more well-rounded flavour than some other breeds, probably because of its diet of apples. I also find that the quality of the birds is consistent and that the breed copes well with middle-range cooking - it's good cooked across the spectrum from medium-rare to medium-well-done."
The ducks arrive in the kitchen plucked, cleaned and with their heads removed. To prepare the dish, the legs and wishbone are removed and Demetre cuts along the belly of the duck and removes the heart. After removing the backbone, he is left with two breasts on the bone. He says: "We always cook duck on the bone here, because it prevents shrinkage of the meat and stops the surface of the meat getting crunchy and dry. It also adds to the flavour."
To flavour the meat prior to roasting, it is steamed lightly, then rubbed with salt and Szechwan pepper, and fan-dried for four hours. Next, it is painted with a lacquer of honey, soy, ginger, bicarbonate of soda and Szechwan pepper, and allowed to rest in this lacquer for 24 hours. It finally requires 11-13 minutes in a 190ºC oven before being served.
To illustrate the usability of farmed ducks and the lack of wastage from the birds, Demetre even uses the Trelough ducks' gizzards in a new dish on his menu: delicately roasted line-caught sea bass with fricassée of potato gnocchi, wild mushrooms, duck gésiers and truffles. "I have never tried duck and fish together anywhere else," he admits, "but it's a combination we've experimented with and it seems to work really well. The gizzards are delicate enough not to overpower the sea bass, and their muskiness enhances its flavour."
If Demetre has plenty to say on the subject of farmed ducks, he waxes even more lyrical when it comes to their wild cousins. While the birds are often only a little over half the size of the farmed variety, they make up for this with their full and gamey flavour, he believes. "In many ways," he says, "wild duck is an entirely different ingredient from farmed duck. It's much smaller and contains virtually no fat, because it has to fly and forage for its food."
Demetre points out that another key difference between farmed and wild duck is that the latter is a very unforgiving ingredient that requires highly skilled cooking. "It has to be served rare to appreciate its full potential and flavour," he notes, "and this means being very careful not to overcook it. Generally, just five minutes in the oven is enough for a wild duck portion, compared with 11-13 minutes for the Trelough duck."
It's also important to remove the skin of wild duck before serving, Demetre adds, because, in contrast to a farmed duck's tasty skin, it is quite bitter and can even taste fishy - reflecting the high fish content of its diet.
During the season (September to February) wild duck appears on the menu at Putney Bridge roasted and paired with a fruit garnish: roast wild duck, turnip tatin, sweet potato purée, cooking juices and air-dried cherries was how it appeared this season, for example. "I nearly always serve wild duck with some sort of fruit, because this is a classical French combination and the flavours complement each other perfectly," he says.
On this point, he goes on to say that one of the best duck dishes he has ever eaten involved an innovative take on the wild bird/fruit combination. "It was at Hibiscus in Ludlow," he recalls. "Claude Bosi [the chef-proprietor] served wild duck flavoured with five spices [star anise, fennel, cloves, cassia and Szechwan pepper] and accompanied with a mandarin marmalade. It was a fabulous dish - championing a national ingredient and using both Chinese and French influences in its preparation."
Demetre adds that he was delighted to see Bosi, like him, working with the ingredient. "I really believe not enough chefs in this country work with game and other highly seasonal ingredients," he says. "It's such a pity, as they are missing out on so much."
Roast wild duck with boudin, turnip tatin and jus with air-dried cherries (serves four)
Recommendations to go with Demetre's dishes:
Delicacies of duck - Escudo Rojo, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 1999
Sea bass with fricassée of potato gnocchi, wild mushrooms, duck gésiers and truffle - Pernand-Vergelesses, 1er cru, Laleure-Piot, 1999
Breast of duck lacquered with blossom honey and Szechwan pepper - Côte Rôtie "Les Grandes Places", Domaine JM Gerin, 1996
Roast wild duck with turnip tatin, sweet potato pur‚e, cooking juices and air-dried cherries - Cabernet Sauvignon, Mas la Plana, Torres (Penedes 1994)