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The book that changed my life was The Great Chefs of France by Quentin Crewe (1978). With lavish photographs by Anthony Blake, it opened the doors of three-star restaurants and introduced us to a world of polished copper and silverware, great cellars, chefs at work and play and their extraordinary food. These were the glory days of nouvelle cuisine — a modernised method, freed from floury veloutés and unnecessary garnishes and with ingredients paramount.
Yet the godfather of this generation had died 20 years before. Half of these demigods — Bise, Outhier, the Troisgros brothers, Paul Bocuse — passed through the kitchens of La Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon, under the tutelage of Fernand Point. The best-known picture of Point shows his huge frame, generated by a regime of extreme gourmandism and a bottle of champagne every breakfast, wrapped in a black double-breasted suit, adorned by a spotted cravat and a critical stare. It was all of a piece: “Garnitures,” he said, “should be arranged like a cravat to a suit.”
Several Point precepts were inherited by Albert Roux and therefore, to a degree, by me. “Je ne suis pas difficile, je me contente de ce qu’il y a de meilleur” — “I am not difficult, I am always satisfied with the best” — was one, along with the dictum: “The best cuisine is based on the products of the season.”
I was sent back to my copy of Ma Gastronomie, a posthumous collection of Point recipes, by reading a recipe from Tony Bilson, a key figure in Australian cooking. Although often requiring the most luxurious ingredients, the recipes are admirably simple. Here is a recipe Bilson concocted after eating this dish at La Pyramide.
Some think a devotion to French gastronomic history irrelevant, superseded by the likes of Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi. But they would acknowledge their debt to Point, along the lines of Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Or, as Point put it: “In all professions, but especially in cooking, one is at school all one’s life.”
Baked duck with tomato and herbs
It is unusual to find such a summery treatment for duck: the acidity of the tomatoes lifts the richness of the meat. Given the ease of serving, it would be quite easy to double this recipe to serve eight.
|6||garlic cloves, chopped|
|3||tomatoes, peeled and seeded|
|2||tsp fresh thyme leaves|
|2||tbs fresh marjoram leaves, chopped|
|1||tbs red wine vinegar|
|Salt and freshly ground black pepper|
|1 tbs||fresh parsley, chopped|
- Season the cavities of the duck with salt and pepper and stuff it with marjoram and thyme sprigs, and one chopped onion. Season the outside of the duck with salt and pepper and cut the skin with a sharp knife in a diamond pattern. Prick the skin around the base of the legs with the point of a knife or fork.
- Place the duck in a preheated oven, 220C, and roast for 50 minutes, basting with the fat every 10 minutes. Take the duck from the oven and allow to cool. Tip the fat from the pan and reserve. Do not clean the pan as it will be used to finish the dish.
- When cool, carve the duck, dividing it in the following manner: the legs into one drumstick and the thighs cut in half; the wings cut into two and each breast cut into two. The meat should be nicely pink but if the legs are too rare, put them back in the oven for five minutes.
- Heat two tablespoons of the duck fat in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add two sliced onions, four garlic cloves and stir gently until soft. When translucent, add the tomatoes, increase the heat and cook briskly. Add the thyme leaves, the marjoram leaves, bay leaves, vinegar and salt and pepper. Cook for a further five minutes over a high heat to evaporate the liquid.
- Heat the baking pan and add the tomato mix to it, using the tomatoes to deglaze the pan, and pulling any caramelised juices into the sauce. Lay the duck pieces on the tomato mix, skin side up. Mix together breadcrumbs, melted butter, shallots, parsley, along with the remaining garlic, thyme and marjoram, and sprinkle the duck with this mix. Bake in a 180C oven for 15 minutes or until the crumbs are golden.
Photographs: Andy Sewell