In the old stone kitchen of a friend’s country house in southwestern France, I lay out the ingredients I’ve just bought at a local market. There are two duck legs; a large duck carcass; potatoes still covered with bits of earth; fat, white asparagus; wild girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms; walnuts; virgin walnut oil; and a crusty baguette.
These are local ingredients, and the way I’ve laid them out reminds me of a still-life. But it’s time to make dinner and there are several “problems.” I am in a strange kitchen, and I have never really understood how to properly cook duck.
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We are spending a few weeks in this tiny village to celebrate my husband’s birthday. It’s a big one. The kind of birthday that requires celebration.
We have been married for more than 30 years, but our time in this ancient village, in this 300-year-old house, makes me feel like we are young honeymooners. Read into that statement what you will. I feel fully alive, excited by everything around me.
For three hours earlier that day, we roamed the huge open-air Saturday morning market in the nearby town of Sarlat. Local farmers, cheesemakers, vintners and bakers set up booths under colorful umbrellas and tents. The market goes for blocks, rambling along the ancient streets offering food that makes me want to stay and cook for years.
There are enormous wheels of locally made cheeses, vats of green and black olives, and gorgeous breads, crusty from the oven. We see huge artichokes and tiny zucchini, green and white asparagus, endive, frissé and fresh fish, along with fat cherries, ripe apricots and briny oysters.
In France, duck is omnipresent
But mostly we notice the duck. Duck is to Perigord what lobster is to Maine. It is omnipresent and defines nearly every menu and market we visit.
We see duck in every form imaginable: in patés, foie gras, gizzard salads, confit, roasted, smoked, raw, chopped, whole. As my friend (in whose house we are staying) says: “These people never saw a duck they didn’t love.”
My husband pleads: “Cook me duck.” It’s his birthday. I can’t really say no.
This is the story of what happened.
I send him off so I can try to learn my way around this new kitchen. The knives are dull, the skillets are thin, and the oven is a small box set into the wall above the four-burner stove.
I look at the duck carcass and decide to make a stock. I set it into the one big soup pot, add some vegetables and leeks, along with a handful of the herbs I “stole” on a walk through a neighboring village yesterday. I take a good look at the duck legs and see that, like proper French duck, they have a thick layer of fat. They will need long, slow cooking.
I season the duck legs with salt and pepper (no pepper mill, which irks me) and a fine sprinkle of fresh rosemary from the bush just outside the house. I place them in a low oven and let them cook for about two hours.
Meanwhile, I cook down the stock. It has a huge flavor that fills the mouth, rich and gamey. I strain it and reduce it down further to intensify the flavor. And suddenly, the dish forms in my mind. While the duck legs cook in a gorgeous pool of duck fat, I sauté the mushrooms in spring garlic and fresh shallots. I add rosemary and tiny sprigs of flowering thyme. I add a splash of the local red wine I bought directly from the man who makes it at his organic vineyard. Then I ladle in some of the reduced duck stock and let it cook down to marry with the mushrooms and aromatics. By the time the duck legs are tender, the sauce is forming into something extraordinary. It needs one more element. Because this is France, I decide to add a dash of crème fraîche. Just enough to thicken the sauce and give it the creamy texture I am looking for.
Finishing the duck, potatoes and asparagus
The duck legs go under the broiler to crisp up the skin. I remove the duck fat from the roasting pan and place it in another skillet. I cut the potatoes into thick slabs and fry them in the duck fat, adding a touch of walnut oil. It’s my version of the local recipe called potatoes Sarladaise. They develop a golden crust and are tender and creamy inside. The white asparagus is steamed and left alone. I place the baguette on a wooden board along with local butter the color of egg yolks.
I plate the duck, top it with the mushroom-cream sauce and carefully place the asparagus and potatoes on the side. I don’t mean to be boastful, but it’s an impressive-looking plate. John calls it the “best duck ever,” and I know why I have stayed married to him all these years.
I cut into the duck. Perfectly moist and tender; the skin, crackly. The earthy sauce tastes like the country — filled with the flavor of meaty mushrooms. The potatoes are creamy with crisp skin and the subtle nuttiness of the walnut oil is a perfect match.
“How did you know how to cook this?” my husband asks. “Your duck never tastes like this at home.”
He is right. I have never cooked duck this well. And the sauce may be one of the finest I have ever put together. What happened? How did this extraordinary plate of food come together?
What made it work?
I could get all philosophical and say the ingredients spoke to me: the beauty of the duck, those gorgeously fresh potatoes, the wild mushrooms, the walnut oil, the crème fraîche. I could say that these local ingredients are among the best I’ve ever seen. In France, food is king, placed on a throne. I merely bowed to royalty.
The next night we feasted on roast pork topped with apricots and honey, cooked until they formed a kind of thick, chunky chutney. In the next few weeks I put together beautiful soups, salads, marinated fresh goat cheese and grilled lamb chops with slow-roasted tomatoes. My food was suddenly … French.
I believe what happened in that kitchen was a kind of osmosis — as if a culture and its culinary traditions became part of me by the simple act of collecting ingredients at the local market and cooking them with all the respect they are due. Whatever magic conspired in that old stone kitchen, we had two weeks of delicious eating.
Top photo: Shoppers at the market in Sarlat, France. Credit: Kathy Gunst