Duck For Cover
We never had duck at home: it was just too expensive and very hard to get—in fact, before we had frozen poultry and supermarkets, unobtainable to ordinary New Zealanders, unless you kept your own ducks or had someone in the family who went shooting.
Le canard pékinois enchaîné
In Paris in the 1970s I had Peking Duck with Claude; that must have been the first time I had duck. It was the only Chinese dish he liked: he took me to the nearest Chinese restaurant, in a side street just off our street in the 10ième, nearer to the grands boulevards, several times, once with his friend Michel but other times just us. He’d always order just the Peking Duck and never let me pay. The flip side of the coin being that that was the only dish he’d order! It was nice but not extraordinary. Poor Claude had the most tremendous crush on the rather pretty young Chinese waiter, but as far as I could see the young man, though he was very polite, (a) wasn’t interested and (b) thought he was mad to just order the duck, bare!
Duck for Cover!
Domestic ducks are very fatty. Wild ducks are said not to be, or this is the received wisdom: I’ve never had wild duck. The first part of the adage, however, is most certainly true. I’ve only managed to afford duck a couple of times. The first dish I did, roast duck, was very nearly a disaster. It generated so much fat that it overflowed the baking dish and made a horrible mess in the bottom of the oven, a flood well over a centimetre deep. I was very lucky it didn’t set the oven alight. The experience was so traumatic that I can’t recall what the duck tasted like.
No wonder today’s moronic telly chefs muck around for ages (or their unseen slaves in the background do), skinning their duck breasts and either roasting or pan-grilling the skin separately and tra-la-la… Oven-roasting a whole domestic duck is a very risky business!
By the way, notice how they always do the duck breasts very rare? This is because they’re incapable of cooking them through and not making them either tough or, since they lack the fat, very dry. Yeah. You can keep your half-raw poultry, thanks, self-appointed culinary experts.
By contrast, the second dish I tried making was delightful. It was a cold dish, “en daube”, set in jelly. It’s fiddly to make but at the time I was a lot younger and keener, and followed the directions slavishly—though I seem to recall I didn’t manage to source all the herbs. It’s a classic Elizabeth David recipe:
Canard en daube
You need 1 large duck or 2 small ones. One which is old and too tough for roasting will do very well for this dish.
Prepare a number of little strips of bacon and the following mixture of herbs:
A handful of parsley, 2 shallots, chives, a clove of garlic, a bay-leaf, a sprig of thyme, a few leaves of basil, salt, pepper, a scrap of grated nutmeg.
Chop all these very finely and roll each strip of bacon in this mixture. Make incisions all over the duck and lard it with the pieces of bacon. Truss the duck and put it into a casserole or braising pan into which it just fits, and pour over it two tumblers of white wine, the same quantity of water and a liqueur glass of brandy. Cover the pan and cook the duck very slowly indeed for 3-4 hours. The sauce will reduce and, when cold, should turn to jelly.
When the duck is cooked, place it in the serving dish; leave the sauce to get cold, so that you can take off the fat, warm it [i.e. the sauce] again slightly and then pour it over the duck, and leave it to set. The duck will be very well cooked, so it will be perfectly easy to carve at the table.
(Elizabeth David. French Country Cooking, By Elizabeth David; Decorated By John Minton. 2nd revised ed. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1966.) (First published 1951)
Old Wives’ Tales
Funnily enough, although we never ate duck in New Zealand back in the Fifties and Sixties—and only saw live ducks at the zoo or in the Domain—we absorbed the current received wisdom, aka old wives’ tales, about ducks.
Clutches of ducklings, so the story runs, were traditionally often fostered by hens in the farmyard, perhaps because they supposedly made better mothers than the ducks did. It’s certainly a story I heard in my youth. This Victorian picture illustrates it.
Never eat raw duck eggs. I’ve known that all my life, from so early that I have no memory at all of first being told it. This was a serious warning in the 1950s, when refrigerated whipped puddings were all the rage, and most of them were made with beaten egg whites. (See “A Christmas Pudding From Katherine”.)
We did occasionally get duck eggs in the 1950s, but I’m blessed if I know where from. Everybody had large back yards on their quarter-acre sections, of course, and quite a few people kept chooks—though this was ceasing to be the norm—but we didn’t know anybody who kept ducks. I suppose Mr Green the grocer occasionally got some in.
The message was that duck eggs could have duck poo in them. It wasn’t until years and years later that I learned why: ducks, unlike hens, only have one tube for both eggs and poo to come down, and there is always the chance of contamination—and hence a dose of salmonellosis. Okay, never eat raw duck eggs. It's quite safe to use them in baking, however.
The Literary Duck, With Covers
Apart from the stories absorbed at our mother’s knee, our main knowledge of ducks came from books. I’m pretty sure I heard the story of Jemima Puddle-duck when I was about four or five, so, 1948-1949, but we didn’t own the book back then. It must have been a borrowed copy. About ten years later we had our own copy and my little sisters listened to it with bated breath. That foxy gentleman was so scary! (Exactly what this story reveals about its creator’s psyche, possibly better not to enquire!)
I think the next book I knew that had ducks in it was probably the lovely hardback non-fiction volume, profusely illustrated with black and white photographs, that I was given when I was about seven. I wish I could remember its title! It was an English book, intended for children, about animals and birds, from which I absorbed all sorts of interesting and useful facts about a range of English creatures, only some of which ever made it out to the Antipodes. Fallow deer, that’s right! It had several sorts of English deer. And I think swallow-tail butterflies, too. And, um, English thrushes? Yes, I’m pretty sure it had a lovely picture of a thrush. They have been introduced in New Zealand, so I guess that one was sort of relevant! It helped to illuminate all those Enid Blytons I read, that’s for sure! Though the vernacular of the “William” books remained opaque.
The “Library” Van
Such a very English volume might seem an odd choice for a child living in New Zealand, but there was nothing like it published locally: we didn’t own a single New Zealand children’s book until I was about eleven, at which point some misguided relative or friend gave us a wishy-washily illustrated volume of Maori legends rewritten for children. Not really this well-meaning donor’s fault: there simply was nothing else in the nineteen-fifties. We were lucky, though: our parents were both readers, so we were encouraged to borrow books from the entrepreneurial Mr Armour with his library van. He owned a bookshop and stationer’s in the next suburb: it was a completely private enterprise. To us as kids it seemed a norm, but looking back, we were incredibly fortunate. A family that had about 1/3d (one shilling and threepence) left over from the weekly wage, no kidding, would never have been able to buy its kids the number of books we got through! The nearest public library was miles away, with no direct bus service at all. I got to know Honeybunch and the Bobbsey twins through Mr Armour’s van, followed by Just William, of course, and the egregious Darrell of Malory Towers, and a little later the Swallows and Amazons. Not to say Biggles and co.! Actually, if we had been anywhere near a public library we’d really have lost out: in those days librarians disapproved entirely of most of these offerings, an attitude which lasted well into the eighties, and as far as Enid Blyton’s concerned, well beyond. When they finally built a brand-new library at the nearest big centre, about half an hour away on the very infrequent buses, we recognised the Arthur Ransomes with relief, but that was about it. Just as well I was too old for most of my old favourites by then, because I certainly wouldn’t have found them at Takapuna Public Library.
The world of Honeybunch, the Bobbsey twins and Pollyanna seemed no stranger to me than that of the Famous Five (I was convinced for years that “Quentin”, their uncle, was a made-up name): I certainly never realised that they came from different sides of the Atlantic! Mr Armour’s van was crammed with American children’s classics—well, definitely classics in their way, never mind the experts on children’s literature (dreadful expression) I encountered in later life—but there were some that he missed, and The Story About Ping was one of them. I’d have been too old for it by then, but if he had stocked it, I’m sure Mum would have borrowed it for my younger sister.
I shouldn’t be so grudging about those well-meaning ladies who introduced me to the study of “children’s literature” and the real definition of a “picture book”, because it was they who showed me Kurt Wiese’s completely charming illustrations of the famous Chinese duck, Ping. Chinese-American: the book is American but the illustrator had lived in China.
The picture above, from AbeBooks.com, shows the cover of a well-used first edition, from 1933. A reprint edition is available from Amazon.com, so you can still get to see Wiese’s really great talent as an illustrator. Ping, though he is a bit yellow—well, he is Chinese, and the book does date from the nineteen-thirties—Is definitely one of the best ducks in literature: a very duck-like duck!