Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Many Ducks Make Six?

Our neighbour and self-appointed mentor, Juliette, is 89. She went to school in Lauzerte and has lived within sight of it all her life. When she married Lucien she moved out of the town and across the valley to Poulet. Despite having lived most of her life within a five kilometre radius, Juliette likes travelling and happily takes any opportunity to venture forth. Lucien, who is now 97 ish, says he did enough travelling when he went to Stalag XO80 near Hanover in (I think) 1941. She looked after the farm while he was away and sent him the occasional picture to show him that all was well.


She is a forceful woman and while being every inch the local farmer’s wife, she is not typical. She paid attention at school and developed her love of travel after the war taking expeditions by coach around Europe.

When she went travelling, Lucien stayed home to look after the farm. Standing in their au-vent (veranda) looking over the valley towards Lauzerte he says “Why would I want to leave?”

Most of the farmers in France use chemical fertilisers, weed and insect killer, fungicides and God know’s what to wring more food out of their fields. We have not discussed Lucien's methods, but Juliette’s pottager, where she grows food for her family, is organic.

The pottager is on the right. The other thing is a Pigeonniere.

What she cannot grow she tends to buy from the local market. She bargains with the stall holders for the freshest local produce at the best price. “Formidable!” is how one of them sums her up when he discovers that we know her.

And she confits her own ducks. Well they do not start out as hers, she buys them from a friend who rears naturally-fed ducks - none of this force feeding for our Juliette. She is generous with her knowledge and in exchange for a couple of days slaving in the kitchen, she has divulged most of the secrets of confitting to Tricia. I get some of this intelligence second-hand, but I do get to eat the duck as Tricia does not eat birds.

Although Juliette buys her birds plucked these days, there is still the business of burning off the last bits of quill. Lucien holds the duck while Juliette trys to set fire to his jumper – it’s always a hoot chez Rech.

If you take ‘x’ ducks you will have ‘x’ heads, hearts, livers, geziers and the bits that stop the bird from fraying at the back end. In English it is the ‘parson’s nose’ – the French call it something similar as I discovered when I told Juliette  that we called it le nez du curée. I didn’t catch the words when she named the part in French, partly because she speaks too fast on occasion, and partly because she was sniggering – possibly le nez du curée has another meaning in French. But I digress. 

You will also have 2’x’ legs, wings, breasts and feet. There will be a number of other bony bits as well as some unidentifiable parts which will become detached in the cooking. Finally you will have a quantity of graisse (duck fat) and fritons (bits of skin which have been cut into 4mm cubes) and are fabulously delicious. The exact amount can only really be described accurately using a mathematical formula of immense complexity – locally it is translated as ‘a couple of jars’. The size of the jars is not defined.

It is quite normal for Juliette and Lucien to confit six  ducks at a time.

"This is not looking good, guys"
The kitchen workers disassemble the ducks into their constituent parts ready to go into the big bucket. 

The bucket is placed on a three-ring burner and the pieces are all cooked together in their own fat. The different pieces have different cooking times and there is a strict order in which the parts are put into, and removed from, the bucket. 

Neither Tricia nor I are privy to the sequence in which they are put into the bucket as this happens in the wee small hours of the morning. Juliette monitors their cooking progress and has a small crew on call to sort them out when they are done. 

Today I am to learn a little more of the confitters art. I have been told to expect a call “between ten to, and ten past, eleven”. The phone rings Juliette says: “C’est Juliette…” I say: “J’arrive…” This is the sort of phone call I can manage en Francais.

Five minutes later I am in the Rech-Cave, which has sub-caves big enough to accommodate a substantial RechMobile, but this beast is kept around the back in a tarpaulin lean-to (more on the Rech’s tractor in a future blog no doubt). Meanwhile, Juliette, Lucien and son, Alain, are doing ‘the witches’ thing from the Scottish play.


I am here to help with the evacuation of duck bits from the bucket. Legs and wings, with half a breast attached to each, are first out; the various bits of carcass and superstructure with succulent mouthfuls of breast and leg meat still attached, are next. Then come the de-billed heads, wing tips, necks and sundries. 

Alain is stirring the bucket of bits with a piece of wood that his great grandfather probably used to do the same job. If left to its own devices it would probably sprout feathers. He stirs, turns and lifts the contents, exposing the pieces in slow succession. 

Juliette is poised, fork in hand, to stab the desired bit and put it in the bowl I am holding. The bowl must be held at the right height and in the correct relationship to the bucket of bits which involves bending forward very slightly. This is horribly uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as trying to change the habits of generations of Rechs by suggesting they put the bowl down on a box/chair/stool next to the bucket. They would look at me as if I were deranged. I have been subjected to this look on a number if occasions, and a bit of back-ache is painless by comparison. L23 Guidance on Regulations (Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 - as amended). (Third edition) HSE Books 2004 ISBN 0 7176 2823 X , price £8.95. available from HSE Books  would definitely have something to say about this.

The gesiers, hearts, feet and aforementioned unidentifiable bits are next to leave the melée. The fritons are the last ones out.

The bits are counted out, each of us taking responsibility for a particular body part. Lucien does the wings, Juliette the heads, Alain the gesiers and hearts and I get the necks which have been cut into three. They count aloud, I count silently. I start counting in French but their counting disrupts my train of thought, so I swap to English repeating the numbers silently to myself so as not to be the one who loses count. 

Then Juliette asks how many bits of neck are still in the pot and I find myself translating sixteen into French, subtracting it from dix huit and coming up with two. Seize I say, meaning that we have 16 pieces, I should have said deux meaning there should be two pieces left. Juliette understands and seems pleased that I have not lost count. I am sure she was using the spare part of her brain, usually reserved for catching people out, to keep her own neck count just in case. This is serious business.

Towards the end the bits are harder to find among the litres of yellow fat. So the fishing expedition is interspersed with fat collecting which lowers the levels revealing new treasures - and provides some fat to put in the jars which are filled with the parts which have already been removed.

Juliette stabs a piece of neck but it drops off the fork and disappears into the yellow anonymity of the fat bucket.  ”Mer-credi” she says. Wednesday? I think, then realise that there was an almost indiscernible pause between ‘mer’ and ‘credi’. I realise that Juliette has left this pause for the native speaker to insert a ‘d’ sound. This is the French version of ‘Fiddlesticks’ or ‘Fer Christ’s sake’ where all the meaning is in the first sound or syllable. By the time I have worked through all this the moment has passed and the piece of neck has re-emerged. It is out of the merde. The last bit of neck and a gesier remain lost for some time - the exitement as we find them is tangible.

And suddenly it is all over. 

It is easy to forget that confitting is principally to conserve the duck for later when fresh food is not so easily available. This means I will have to wait to taste the fruit of our labours. Then I think: Hold on! It's the middle of bloody January, this is as bad as it gets... what's going on? But do not feel inclined to ask Juliette. Maybe some other time.

Besides, there is a bonus. 

I am sent home with a tray of assorted bits of carcass, two webbed feet and a heart. I think this is supposed to be lunch, but it will make several meals, and whet the appetitie for the best confit du canard on the planet.

It is some claim, but this is a genuine, free-range, organic, corn-fed duck. It has been cooked in its own fat (OK, and some of its mates' fat as well). The only additional ingredient is salt. The fat is salted prior to rendering to remove any remaining moisture. The duck is confitted by someone who has been doing this for longer than I have been alive. And the result is sublime. It is difficult to imagine how it could be improved.

SON: Dad, there's a man at the door with a bill.
DAD: Don't be silly son, it must be a duck with a hat on.

Laugh? I nearly did.

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