The Aperitif Guy
8:40 AM 4th September 2019
A Most Unusual Dish
The finished item...
Many of you will have watched the recent BBC programme “Remarkable Places to Eat,” in which top chefs take Fred Sirieix to their favourite foodie cities and show him various wonderful places to eat. When Michel Roux Jr took Fred to Paris, much of the programme centred on the restaurant La Tour d’Argent and its famous dish of pressed duck. The duck is served in a sauce made from the its blood and bone marrow, extracted in a silver-plated press before the diners’ eyes.
The same dish, in a thinly disguised version of La Tour d’Argent, features in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” I’ve been a fan of Waugh’s novel since my teens and have always wondered how the famous dinner in Paris must have tasted. In more recent years, the internet has informed me more fully about the nature of the dish and its preparation. It has also taught me that I’m unlikely ever to be able to afford dinner at any restaurant serving the dish (I can find two in London, one in Berkshire and no others in the UK) and certain never to own a duck press. While the presses do occasionally come up on US auction sites, they change hands for several thousand dollars.
All that changed a couple of years ago, when a friend presented me with the birthday gift of an antique, heavy-gauge fruit press. “I’m sure it’ll press a duck for you,” he said. And so we set about finding out the secrets of this mysterious dish, so special that even La Tour d’Argent issues you with a certificate to remember the occasion.
The first stage is simple enough: a whole duck is seasoned inside and out and roasted for 20 minutes or so in a hot oven.
So far so normal.
Then it goes weird. The breasts are removed and kept warm; the legs removed and returned to the oven with any fat and some cubed potatoes, and the rest of the carcass is broken up a little and placed into the press. All this must be done while the duck is still hot. Meanwhile, in the dining room,
the head waiter is at your table with a spirit burner and shallow pan. He softens a chopped shallot and adds Cognac, Madeira and a little duck stock. The press is brought to the table and, turning the ornate handle, he extracts the blood and bone marrow from the carcass. This is added to the sauce, which causes it to thicken. The breast meat is sliced, and the sauce poured over it, to finish cooking the meat in its heat. When you have finished eating the breast meat, the slow-cooked leg is brought to your table with potatoes cooked in the fat.
Not having a full brigade of kitchen staff, cooking the dish proved to be quite a challenge. Fortunately, a dish this special can’t be made for a large group, so it has only come out on those rare occasions when we’re dining alone. My partner is very forgiving of me spending time away from the table, especially when I furnish him with a fine Burgundy to soothe his disappointment. Aside from the problems of quartering a hot bird, straight out of the oven, the hardest part is pressing the liquid. A traditional press is bolted down, either to the end of the bar or to the heavy trolley on which it is moved around the dining room. The wheel at the top is huge, about 14” across, to can create enormous pressures without the waiter appearing to put in much effort. My own press is small and mobile. I need a second pair of hands to hold it still while I work, and I have learnt to go slowly and steadily with it: attentiveness to the feel of the press, patience, gentleness and courage are rewarded by enough of the precious, pink juice to flavour and thicken the sauce.
Confit leg and potatoes
The finished dish wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Many on-line accounts describe the taste as too rich, and the very method of preparation would put plenty off. Personally, I consider the flavour lovely. It does have a richness that comes from the marrow, just as osso buco does, or sauce bordelaise. The experience is one of luxury, too. I might only use my press every couple of years, but it does create a sense of occasion, and I can boast that, of four British chefs serving pressed duck, I’m the only one who has no Michelin star… yet.
The Aperitif Guy has a regular blog at blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk or you can follow him on Twitter @AperitifGuy