Flighting duck on a pond is, to me, one of the great delights of early autumn. The sound of honks from on high is followed by the unmistakable whiffle of their wings and a few splashes. The day dims slowly, then, before you realise it, darkness has fallen. Glow-worms do not make good torches for the stumble back through the coppiced wood. In the Netherlands, where my family has a small duck pond, we have to hand a tool that closely resembles a crochet hook. This is used to remove the ducks? guts through the anus, ensuring that the flesh won?t be tainted while the birds are hung.
Hanging duck, or for that matter any waterfowl, is an imperfect science, and leaves opinions divided. Many of the wildfowlers I have met don?t hang the birds at all, and certainly for those shot on the foreshore, the meat can spoil extremely quickly if the weather is warm. With flighted duck, I tend to hang them in a cool, dry place for three or four days, but no longer. If the weather is mild, I sometimes take the added precaution of removing the crop, which can start to ferment. Plucking duck is a messy business, but skinning, or breasting them is a crying shame. If you have a shed and a regular source of mallard, it is worth having a pan of paraffin wax to hand to get rid of the downy feathers. Try to avoid cutting out any of the wonderful fat from the edge of the cavity because this will add moisture and taste during cooking.
Livers on toast
When you draw mallard, keep the hearts and livers. I put them into separate bags, seal them and then wrap the bag in a sheet of newspaper. Doing this prevents them from suffering freezer burn, which spoils them entirely. In fact, I wrap all smaller pieces of meat or fish in newspaper before putting them into the freezer ? they will stay moist for much longer.
Once you have enough for a good meal, the hearts can be fried in butter. Brown them slightly, add a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, a ladle of duck stock and season. Leave to bubble for a couple of minutes, remove the hearts from the pan and reduce the sauce. Add the hearts back to the sauce to warm and serve on hot buttered toast. It?s a simple method, but the results are delicious. The livers can be saved and used later for making a pâté or to fry and serve with a salad or on toast.
Mallard is a favourite at home, and we usually roast it plain, and always put the carcase in a tightly fitting pan, with onion, carrot and celery, cover it with water and simmer for an hour for stock. Apples, sliced and fried, or cooked in butter with a red onion, some finely chopped fresh sage and a spoon of sugar make a very good accompaniment to duck. Oranges are another classic combination. The method below is based on that wonderful French sauce, bigarade, which is not unlike Cumberland sauce. Bigarade is the name for bitter oranges in France, much like Seville oranges. If you?re cooking this in late January or early February, use a Seville orange or two for the glaze instead of, as in the recipe below, a lemon and an orange. Don?t, however, try to use the Seville orange for the salad!
Spiced duck: ingredients (serves 4)
. 2 tsp ground ginger
. 1 tsp sea salt, such as Maldon
. 1 tsp ground pepper
. zest of 1 orange
. zest of 1 lemon
. 1 heaped tbsp redcurrant jelly
. 2 mallard, plucked and drawn
.3 tbs butter
. 2 glasses of port
. 2 oranges
1. Preheat the oven to 220°C. Mix together the ginger, salt, pepper, zest and redcurrant jelly and rub all over the mallard. Allow to sit for 20 minutes or so.
2. Melt 2 tbsp of the butter. Place the mallard into a roasting tin and pour over the butter, then put the birds in the oven. Roast for 15 minutes. By now, the birds should be well browned and caramelised. Turn the oven down to 180°C. After another 10 minutes, pour the port into the roasting pan and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
3. Once the mallard have cooked for 35 minutes in total, take the pan out of the oven and cover with a couple of layers of aluminium foil and a few tea towels. Allow to rest.
4. Meanwhile, make the watercress and orange salad. Cut the top and bottom off the orange, so that the flesh is exposed. Place the orange on a wooden board and, using a very sharp knife, cut a strip of peel off. You can then follow the pith with the knife, so that you are left with none of the bitter, tough parts. You should now be able to see the segments. Cut on each side of the segment skin to remove each segment.
5. By now, the mallard should have rested for at least 10 minutes. Take the birds out of the roasting tin and place on a serving plate, then arrange the watercress and orange segments around the duck.
6. Put the roasting pan on to a high heat. Scrape all the meaty juices together, add a glass of water and reduce slightly. Whisk in a tablespoon of butter, which will make the sauce shine, sieve to remove any peel, and serve.