Friday 11 January 2008

Recipe: Duck à l'Orange

It's the season for bitter oranges. Louisa's tree is laden with them, and there's a garden just off Piazza Cavalieri where the branches of the orange tree are heavy with fruit every year at this time, looking like something from the background of a Mantegna fresco.....

At lunch at Mazzolla, at the start of the week, I was the happy recipient of a bag of oranges which had come from the Brancolis' tree - they were doing a brief fly-past to their hillside, to do some vine-pruning, and took time-out to join in the birthday lunch. Beautiful and blemish-free, the oranges sat in a glass bowl, for the next few days, crying out for attention. No point in making marmalade, since a supply of premium-quality marmalade makes its way to us down the hill from Brancoli, anyway - and so my thoughts turned to Duck à l'Orange.

This is another dish desperately in need of being saved!

There once was a time when it was deservedly famous; served at the most distinguished restaurants, it was a classic. Now, most chefs grimace at the very thought of it. How did something once considered synonymous with sublime become so, well......... naff?

The recipe is easily tracked back to the end of the 19th century - but almost certainly it goes back much further than that. The main ingredient, bitter orange, was introduced to Europe at the time of the Crusades and became widely used, so it wouldn't be surprising to find a 500 year old recipe. Fatty duckling and astringent bitter orange seem a natural combination.

In the early 1900's, the recipe comprised duckling, braised or pot-roast, served with one of the then basic brown sauces - Sauce à la Bigarade: a sauce flavoured with bitter oranges. The basic sauce was made of well-reduced stock, or braising liquor, which was flavoured with the juice of bitter oranges, a little lemon juice and a little caramel to cut the acidity. Bitter orange juice is pretty sour and the fruit is not particularly juicy.

Unfortunately, substituting modern oranges for bitter can lead to some alarmingly different results. Six bitter oranges will yield about a cup of sour juice, six supermarket oranges will give you two cups of very sweet orange juice. This is probably where things started to go wrong: too much sugar and too much orange, and before you know it you have a sticky marmalade sauce, which is really rather disgusting.
Sauce à la Bigarade, when correctly made, is a deliciously, intensely savoury sauce with a hint of orange and a complex bitter-sweet tone.

On conducting some research on the library shelves here, I found that Mrs Kafka's version is very similar to that of Alice B Toklas, except with the addition of Cumin and the specification to use blood oranges; Robert Carrier introduces Cognac, and makes a Caramel to stir in at the end; the version in Larousse Gastronomique (1988 Edition) incorporates a generous quantity of Mandarin Napoleon, and a spoonful of Vinegar; Escoffier gives the Sauce à la Bigarade quoted above .......and Alan Davidson gives no recipe, but merely refers witheringly to the place Duck à l'Orange has shamefully assumed within 'debased international cooking'.....

Something niggled at the back of my mind, though. Without exception - and I suppose not surprisingly - all of the sources specify squeezing quantities of orange juice, and then laboriously reducing it to a usable, concentrated amount. There are better ways to do it than that, I concluded, and ended up devising the following version. Very simple, and delicious.

For two servings of roast Duck.

Ingredients: 5 fl oz of Duck Stock (I boned the Duck before roasting it, and used the bones to make the stock for the sauce base); 1 tablespoon of Cognac; 1 teaspoon of Boyajian Orange Oil; half a teaspoon of dark Molasses (or Fowler's Black Treacle - wonderful stuff, and surprisingly useful in the kitchen, in general).


1. Bring the Stock to a slow boil in a small saucepan, along with the Cognac and Orange Oil.

2. Reduce it carefully, over about half an hour, until you have only a very small amount of liquid remaining in the bottom of the pan - remember, you need only a spoonful of intensely flavoured liquid per person.

3. Stir in the Molasses, as you take the Duck from the oven to rest for five minutes or so.

Serve; one spoonful per person.

Of course, this leaves me still with the bitter Orange question. ......
Something tells me we'll be having Nigella's Bitter Orange Ice Cream for dessert tomorrow evening!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't despair. Duck à l'orange is still on the menu at Lasserre in Paris:
Canette de Challans à l’orange, foie gras et endives caramélisées--140€.
I guess $210 for an entree is a bit steep.