In the town of Rouen in Normandy, France, there is a dish that should not be missed. It is canard a la rouennaise a la presse — pressed duck. Here is how my husband and I discovered and enjoyed this culinary experience this summer.
Rouen is a charming historic Norman town 80 miles north of Paris with a well-preserved and meticulously reconstructed (from war damage) old-town district. The Seine flows through town, dividing the historic section and the postwar new one.
This summer we visited the town to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Rouen, which inspired Claude Monet; learn the history of Joan of Arc in the place of her death; and take long walks from one historical site to another through narrow streets and small plazas. And, of course, we were ready to savor some good, local meals to complement our time in Rouen. Canard a la rouennaise a la presse was the natural first choice. We made a reservation at La Couronne, taking note of the warning in a guidebook about the price of the dish — “if you can afford it.”
La Couronne is housed in a beautiful half-timbered inn claiming to be the oldest inn in France. It was transformed into a restaurant in the 19th century. When the present owners, the Cauvin family, took over the restaurant in 1989, they did research on the building and found evidence that the space they use as a wine cellar dates to the 12th century.
Entering this old establishment with a dark wood ceiling and walls and windows enclosed by heavy drapes made us feel we were transported to the age of Joan of Arc. An elegant maitre d’hotel, Dominique Boucourt, ushered us to our table, and without hesitation we ordered the canard a la Rouennaise a la presse and good Bordeaux.
Table-side preparation adds to showiness of pressed duck
Canard a la rouennaise a la presse, which was quaintly translated as “squeezed duck in Rouen style” on the English menu, was invented at the beginning of the 19th century by executive chef Henri Denise at L’Hotel de la Poste in Duclair, near Rouen, according to Sacha Cauvin, the son of the current owner and manager of the restaurant. Paul Hamlyn, publisher of “Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia,” writes that “the recipe for pressed duck owed much of its immediate success to the Duke of Chartres, who commended it highly in Paris.” In Paris it became famous, but its ancestral home is Normandy.
While nursing a glass of wine, I realized our duck dish would be mostly prepared and served at our table, because at a distant table I could see Boucourt in action — carving the duck, pressing the carcass, cooking the fillets, preparing the sauce and serving the dish to a young couple mesmerized by the smooth operation.
Boucourt returned to our table with a side table full of cooking equipment — a chopping board, knife, tabletop cooker and machine called la presse used to squeeze the blood and juice from the carcass. He proudly presented us a very lightly oven-baked, plump Rouen duck, and then the show began.
He first removed the breast and legs from the body, removed the skin from the breast and then cut the meat into slices. Every procedure was done with such professionalism and speed that my sipping of wine stopped just so I could pay close attention. Boucourt moved on to cooking the sliced breast meat in a saucer over the stove on his table. Flamed cognac was added to the fillets. After setting the cooked breast meat aside, he filled the inside of the presse with the duck carcass. He closed the lid and screwed down the pressing element, and the blood and juices ran down into a silver bowl. He then placed another cooking saucer over the fire and poured in red Burgundy. When the wine began to simmer, he added the blood and duck juices. A chunk of butter followed, and the sauce was cooked down. The flame flickered up, and the aroma of the fragrant sauce hit our noses and made our stomachs growl. Boucourt finished the sauce with a little salt and pepper, and the previously flambéed duck slices were added to the sauce to flavor them.
Within a few moments, the beautifully presented dishes were served to us. The meat itself was flavorful and tender, and the strong but delicately aromatic, rich blood-wine sauce was heaven sent as the perfect accompaniment for the duck. While enjoying the dish, Boucourt’s finely tuned, flawless preparation flashed back to my mind. This year is his 33rd serving canard a la rouennaise a la presse, the longest such tenure in the history of La Couronne.
The La Couronne kitchen uses duck from Duclair, 11 miles west of Rouen. This duck originated in and near Duclair, and breeding standards for these birds were established in 1923. This is not the highly bred, much heavier variety known as “Rouen duck.” That is a different bird. Ducks from Duclair are slaughtered at the age of 10 weeks using a method that keeps the blood inside the body.
Using blood in food preparation is not a practice of the Japanese kitchen that is my own discipline. When I prepare duck, I take particular care to remove the blood. So I thank Rouen, La Couronne, Boucourt and canard a la rouennaise a la presse for providing me this precious experience and new knowledge that is now a part of my cooking knowledge and life.
The recipe presented here is not for the Rouen pressed duck, but for duck cooked the Japanese way. This is certainly different from canard a la rouennaise a la presse, but is an excellent easy way to prepare and enjoy duck as an appetizer course.
- ½ cup sake
- ½ cup mirin
- 2 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
- 2 tablespoons shoyu (regular soy sauce)
- 1 large boneless half duck breast
- Hot mustard paste for serving
- In a saucepan, combine the sake, mirin and both of the shoyu and bring the mixture to a simmer. Transfer the liquid to a steamer-safe container large enough to accommodate the duck.
- In a heated skillet, add the duck, skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden. Turn the duck over and cook until the other side is golden.
- Add the browned duck to the prepared liquid in the container. Transfer the container to a steamer and cook for 12 minutes. Remove the container from the steamer, and remove the duck from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid in the container.
- Insert a grilling skewer through the duck breast and hang the breast over a bowl for one hour to allow any blood to drain from the meat for disposal. Return the duck to the cooled cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, remove the duck from the cooking liquid and slice thin. Serve the duck in six portions each with a dab of hot mustard paste.
Main photo: The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne