I love the logical evolution of French cookery, the way the different regions have been moulded over the centuries by their own terroir, seasons and produce.
In some regions the correlation is obvious. The glittering olive trees that thrive along the Mediterranean coast provide the oil that is intrinsic to the cooking of the south, while the lush green pastures of the north nurture a dairy industry and consequently a diet rich in butter and cream.
In the west, and particularly southwest of France, it is duck and goose fat that adds a unique flavour to the cuisine.
Perhaps it was the migratory path of wild geese and ducks that inspired their culinary niche? While most of the birds are now farmed traditionally the turning of the autumn leaves was accompanied by the arrival of these birds, having headed south to avoid the harsh winters and frozen lakes of their northern breeding grounds.
There are three dishes that jostle for supremacy in the region: confit de canard, cassoulet and foie gras. In modern cookery all three can be made using duck and goose interchangeably.
Confit, a term derived from the French verb confire meaning to preserve, most often refers to a confit of duck leg, seasoned in an aromatic salt mix then very slowly cooked in its own fat. The meat can then be stored for the winter months under this protective layer of fat.
Cassoulet is an unctuous amalgamation of haricot beans, confit duck or goose, lamb, sausage, garlic and herbs. Traditionally it is slowly cooked in a large earthenware container until it forms its distinguishing crust. Said to have originated in Toulouse (with variations from Castelnaudary and Carcassone among others), it is the ultimate special occasions dish for the cold weather.
Foie gras (literally translating to fat liver) is praised and condemned in equal parts. Celebrated for its rich, buttery yet delicate flavour, foie gras is considered a culinary delicacy across France. It is the process of gavage (a system whereby the birds are force-fed corn) that has polarised diners.
In a classic case of nature knowing better, it appears that foie gras is derived from the birds naturally gorging themselves. This indulgence would serve to replenish them post-flight and prepare for the cold winter months ahead.
In a food culture where common sense and natural thrift are as intrinsic as the flavour, we are given these treats of the table. This autumn indulge your tastebuds with the taste of the south west of France, it will be cheaper than flying there.
Select and store -
Where possible choose a free-range duck that has not been frozen. Ducks have a very short shelf-life and should be consumed within two days of purchasing them.
Duck loves –
orange, pepper, garlic, peas, cherries, turnips, cider, figs, juniper, port, plums, five-spice,
Cooking with duck -
To render your own duck fat: remove excess fat from the cavity of the bird and place in a small saucepan with a little water (to stop the fat catching on the bottom of the pan) and heat slowly. Strain the rendered fat and use in place of oil where the distinct rich flavour will be of advantage, in particular with roasted potatoes, or pan-fried croutons. Alternatively a lot of fat will naturally render from a whole duck that is roasted. Simply strain the fat, chill, remove any impurities, and keep in the fridge.
Rub an aromatic spice mix of crushed juniper berries, peppercorns and salt into a duck breast you have scored with a sharp knife. Aim to do this at least half an hour before you would like to cook with it, to allow the duck to come to room temperature and the skin to dry out a little. Place in a hot frying pan skin-side down, then reduce heat and allow the fat to render and the skin to become crisp without burning. Once the skin is crisp place in a moderate oven until cooked to your liking (I like my duck medium rare).