While visiting Brittany -- the picturesque westernmost tip of France -- in the chill of late winter, we missed the crowds of vacationers on the sandy beaches but had ample time to tour the historic old province. I was also able to sample firsthand some of the famed Breton gastronomy, based on the sturdy goodness of its superlative fish and shellfish, homegrown vegetables, saltmarsh winter, we missed the crowds of vacationers on the Sandy Beaches but had ample time to tour the historic old province. I was also able to sample firsthand some of the famed Breton Gastronomy, based on the sturdy goodness of its superlative fish and shellfish, homegrown vegatables, saltm lamb, charcuterie and, of course, the famed duck of Nantes.
Now domesticated, this dark-fleshed water bird -- known for its superb rich flavor, halfway between poultry and game -- traces its ancestry to the mallard, a native of the Northern Hemisphere of Europe, Asia and North America.
Long ago, the French developed a high regard for the delicacy of duck and found that the marshy lands of the northwest regions were particularly good for raising various species, which they developed by crossing the wild mallard with domestic fowl. The resulting lean flesh has a rich and appealing gamey flavor.
Nantes -- Brittany's largest city and capital, as well as the region's principal port -- has been a center for food trade and production for centuries. The surrounding area is widely known for its excellent game and poultry, particularly the duck of Nantes, which has long served as inspiration for many renowned dishes.
The most famous of the Nantes duck dishes, and one of the great joys of the French cuisine, is caneton a l'orange, crisp roast duck accompanied by a rich orange-flavored sauce made with the roasting juices, a brown sauce, caramelized sugar, wine vinegar, orange juice and peel, to which an orange-flavored liqueur is added. It is also called a la bigarade, the French name for the seville or bitter orange, originally used in this sauce. Today, however, there are many variations of the dish.
Caneton nantais, a special spring delicacy, is a traditional dish of duck cooked with bacon, small onions and green peas. In caneton aux navets, the duck is braised with lightly caramelized turnips, which absorb some of the fat and sauce, giving the vegetables an interesting, different flavor.
The duck is also cooked with sauerkraut, sausages and various garnishes. It is sometimes stuffed with fruit or boned to make ballottines and galantines; and, of course, the livers are used to prepare world-renowned pa te's and terrines. To accompany these dishes, Bretons enjoy either their regional drink of hard cidre (cider) or their fruity white muscadet, grown on the slopes of the lower Loire river.
The Nantes duck or canard nantais is popular with cooks, as it is smaller than some of the other water birds favored by the French, such as the full-breasted canard rouennaise of Normandy or the wild ducks that are so highly prized in the southern provinces. Its magnificent delicate flesh is a result of the bird being bled before it is cooked.
While French ducks are not available in America and differ in flavor from our Long Island ducklings, the latter can be substituted. The ducklings that can be purchased in most local markets generally weigh between 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 pounds, are sold ready to cook and are usually frozen.
Here are three classic ways of preparing the Breton duck.
SAUERKRAUT-STUFFED ROAST DUCKLING (4 servings) 5-pound duckling, thawed Salt 1 medium onion, chopped 2 tablespoons bacon drippings or vegetable oil 1 pound sauerkraut, drained 1 tart apple, cored, peeled and chopped 1 medium bay leaf 1 teaspoon dried thyme Pepper to taste
Rinse duckling, drain and pat dry. Rub inside and outside with salt. Prick skin with a fork all over to allow fat to drain out. Place on a rack in a roasting pan and cook 20 minutes in a 450-degree oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Remove duckling from oven to a platter. Pour off fat.
Meanwhile, saute' onion in heated drippings or oil in a medium-sized saucepan until tender. Add sauerkraut and saute', tossing with a fork, 1 or 2 minutes. Add apple, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cook slowly, uncovered, 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Spoon mixture into duck cavity. Return duck to oven and cook about 1 1/2 hours longer, or until desired degree of doneness and skin is crisp and brown. Carve duckling and serve surrounded with the sauerkraut dressing.
BRAISED DUCKLING WITH TURNIPS (4 servings) 5-pound duckling, thawed Salt 3/4 cup dry white wine 2 cups beef stock 1 bouquet garni (2 sprigs parsley, 1/4 teaspoon thyme, 1 bay leaf tied in cheesecloth) Pepper to taste 3 turnips (about 1 pound), peeled and cubed 16 small white onions, peeled 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon sugar
Rinse duckling, drain and pat dry. Rub with salt inside and out. Prick skin all over with a fork. Place on a rack in a roasting pan and cook 20 minutes in a 450-degree oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Remove duckling from oven to a platter. Pour off fat, reserving 2 tablespoons for sauce. Add wine, stock or sauce, bouquet garni and pepper to fat, mixing well. Return duckling to pan, place in oven and cook about 1 1/2 hours longer, or until desired degree of doneness and skin is crisp and brown.
Meanwhile, cook turnips and onions in butter in a skillet for 5 minutes. Add sugar and cook 1 or 2 minutes. Arrange vegetables around duckling 30 minutes before the roasting time is completed. Baste duck and vegetables with the sauce. Carve duckling and serve surrounded with the vegetables and topped with the sauce.
ROAST DUCKLING WITH ORANGE SAUCE (4 servings) 5-pound duckling, thawed Salt 1 large navel orange 2 teaspoons arrowroot 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon wine vinegar 1 cup beef broth 1/2 cup dry white wine Juice of 1/2 lemon 2 tablespoons curacao or other orange-flavored liqueur
Rinse duckling, drain and pat dry. Rub with salt inside and out. Prick skin all over with a fork. Place on a rack in a roasting pan and cook for 20 minutes in a 450-degree oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Remove duckling from oven. Pour off all fat that has accumulated in the pan. Return duck to oven and cook about 1 1/2 hours longer, or until desired degree of doneness and skin is crisp and brown.
Meanwhile, peel orange. Cut off zest, making sure to discard any pith. Cut peel into small julienne strips. Cook the orange strips in boiling water to cover 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, pat dry and set aside. Juice the orange; you should have enough juice to make 1/2 cup.
When duckling is cooked remove to a platter and keep warm. Spoon out fat except for 1 tablespoon; leave drippings in pan. Set the pan over low heat and add the arrowroot, stirring, for 1 minute. Add sugar and vinegar and cook 1 minute. Add brown sauce, wine, orange and lemon juices. Cook, stirring, until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Add orange peel and liqueur. Serve sauce separately in a bowl. Carve duckling and garnish with peeled orange segments or slices, if desired.