I used to handle a bit of game in the season. My boss would quixotically tell one of his landowner customers that he’d take anything they could shoot and I’d end up trying to process 200 pheasant on a Monday morning. We had a plucking machine, a noisy contraption that took a bit of skill if you weren’t going to rip the bird to pieces. I became adept at plucking pheasant, partridge and one or two other species. The day 150 mallard came in, however, I was undone.
You can, after a fashion, remove the outer feathers of a duck. But beneath this layer the bird is covered in a soft down that no machine will touch. Professionals do not even try. They dip the birds in hot wax and remove wax and down wholesale.
On the other hand, wild duck is not especially difficult to cook. As long as the breasts are kept quite rare and, despite their covering of fat, well barded with butter, they generally turn out all right. The legs are more problematic and need to be cooked longer to be edible.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roast wild duck with apples, rosemary and bacon
I normally think two ingredients, perhaps three, are enough and more is confusion: however, the duck has a strong flavour and this combination works well. Serves six.
6 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
12 slices pancetta or similar streaky bacon, thinly cut
6 sprigs rosemary
3 Bramley or similar cooking apples
1 dsp sugar
50ml sherry vinegar
100ml dry sherry
100ml chicken stock
Make sure the interiors of the ducks are clean and dry. Season each of them with salt, pepper, a slice of lemon, two cloves of garlic lightly crushed and a bay leaf. Smear half the butter over the breasts of duck and affix a sprig of rosemary on each breast. Cover with two slices of pancetta and fix with two loops of string over the breast at each end. Place the ducks breast side up on a rack in an oven tray and roast in a hot oven (220C) for 18 minutes.
Cut the apples in half across the cores and remove the cores with a teaspoon. Place a pinch of sugar and a knob of butter in each one and place in the hot oven for 8-10 minutes.
Once the ducks are cooked, take them from their tray and remove the legs with a sharp knife. Leave the remainder to rest on the rack, breast side down. Place the legs back in the roasting tray and back in the oven for a further 10 minutes. Pick through the spinach leaves, separating and discarding the stalks. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy casserole. Add the spinach and cook on a high flame until the spinach is wilted but still a brilliant green. Season with a little extra salt and some milled black pepper and drain. Keep warm.
Peel and slice the shallots. Remove the duck legs from the pan and add the shallots and a knob of butter. Once they have coloured, sprinkle the shallots with the sugar. Stew this with a sprig of rosemary on top of the stove until the juices start to caramelise. Stir well and then pour in the sherry vinegar. Scrape up all the juices and reduce to a syrupy glaze. Add the sherry (or white wine) and bring to a boil before adding the stock.
Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the juices that have escaped from the resting ducks. Check the seasoning, whisk in a knob of butter and a squeeze of lemon juice and strain the sauce into a sauceboat.
Untie the ducks and take the pink breasts off the bone together with their bacon. Place the spinach and a half apple on each plate. Arrange the sliced breasts on the spinach and the leg in the apples and pour the sauce around.