I was at the 'WORST Metro supermarket in the world' in our neighbouring village, which means I was desperate; I really only use it as a dépanneur, say for beer or baking soda. When there though, I can't help but stroll by the meat, fish and produce counters only to shudder and gripe. Pity on the manager if he is around. There is nothing remotely natural, organic or artisanal in this joint. Any such talk is met with blank stares, but I can hardly blame the guy; it's his bumpkin customers. Funnily, if you look out the door, there are farms all around.. After ten minutes of walking up and down aisles and aisles of processed food, frozen goods and miscellaneous crap to locate my 'petite vache', I saw IT - a golden tub of DUCK FAT! Nestled up to the battery chicken it was, with no duck meat in sight, but definitely, Lac Brome DUCK FAT - woah! In small town 'Épiphanie. That's when I knew it was time to finally publish that duck fat article I wrote this winter during my food writing class.
Yes, that article some of you heard about, that I laboured over and eventually got tired of. The article that taught me how painful the business of writing can be, and that I should stick to my day job and keep it fun. Beyond it being a symbolic article for me, it is a celebration of a great ingredient and of Quebec joie de vivre, so better shared than relegated to the soon forgotten pile on my hard drive, I figure..
In my research for the article, I realized that I should have been writing about duck in general, given how crazy or simply curious Quebeckers were about it, and how much misinformation was out there. Even among the avid duck eaters, many didn't know about the health benefits of duck, what a smart local choice it is, or the difference between the different breeds and the ways of cooking them, let alone how the contraversial foie gras fits into the mix. Somebody (else) should really write that article, especially for Anglo Quebec/Canada. In the mean time, no matter how delicious and good duck meat is, we mustn't ever forget about the fat!
Duck fat is back, and crackling hot
Move over bacon. Watch out olive oil. Duck fat has everything to be the fat of the moment. As it sizzles in chefs’ kitchens and flies off store shelves, it is surfacing in contemporary recipes, jazzing up salad dressing and pastries, luxuriously basting turkey, searing scallops, and making soup sing.
Celebrity chef Martin Picard is packing them in at his famous Pied de Cochon bistro and sugar shack in Montreal, where duck fat plays a starring role on his menu. At Les Jardins Sauvages, our country restaurant, I use it in all the traditional ways, uncovering novel uses by the day. I use it to slow cook guinea fowl legs or venison shank, to start off a stew, and to pan fry potatoes or cabbage. It is the main ingredient in my new favourite pie dough. My colleague Benoit, swears by his morning eggs gently coddled in duck fat, and has been known to make the occasional ‘man’s popcorn’ with the stuff. But we chefs aren’t the only ones merrily sopping it up; duck fat appears to have gone mainstream.
I knew something was up when customers started asking me for some to smuggle home. Then I noticed the steep price tag on a supplier list, and at the store. Wait a second; didn’t this stuff used to be free? Speaking to John Bastien, an organic Muscovy duck producer in the Laurentians, he informed me he couldn’t keep up with the demand for confit at his farm kiosque, and so needed all his fat. Now that the classic dish has gone from fancy restaurant fare to cupboard staple, even sold at the supermarket, the fat is a hot commodity, too.
That duck fat is both tasty and a reliable cooking medium is nothing new. It has a long history in cooking and preserving, dating back more than 2000 years to the first domestication in China and was used throughout ancient Rome, subsequently spreading all over. Nowhere did the practice settle as solidly as in south western France, where still today, duck is a way of life, and Gascony butter (duck fat mixed with poached garlic and salt) is slathered onto bread. It is no surprise that the custom followed here, becoming deeply entrenched in Nouvelle France.
Although duck fat would remain a staple in Quebec professional kitchens, up until recently, it was sadly forgotten about at home. It may have once been a key ingredient in an old family recipe for casserole or pea soup, but like in the rest of North America, somewhere in the 70’s people went running from saturated fat in artery clogging fear, shunning suet, lard and butter too.
Since then, we have learned a lot about fat. Now butter is “good” and margarine is “bad”, and the latest studies are confirming that saturated fat is not so evil, something our body needs and processes better than the new trans-fats derived from vegetable oils. And duck fat is king of the animal fats, being high in mono-unsaturates (30% less saturated fat and 50% less cholesterol than butter), having a cardiac-friendly high Omega 3:6 ratio, and cancer fighting CLA’s (conjugated lineolic acid), as with any meat raised on pasture, and not only grain. John Bastien, a proponent of ‘real’ food, and proud of his ducks, was eager to remind me of this, urging me to dig into Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” where she debunks the common myths about saturated fat.
Despite the years of effective marketing against animal fats by the soya business, as far back as 1991, food-loving journalists were singing the praises of duck fat and linking it to the French Paradox *. This mystery of how the French, despite their high fat intake, have less cardiovascular disease than Americans was made popular in a 1991 60 Minutes episode. A hot topic ever since, the speculation continues about whether it is the duck fat, the red wine, or the eating patterns that is responsible for the phenomenon.
However promising, it appears not to be healthiness alone that has propelled duck fat onto our culinary radar. A combination of trends has converged in its favour. Fat in general appears to be making a comeback, celebrated on restaurant menus and in books like Jennifer McLagan’s award winning “FAT: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient.” Then there’s the food porn, and the popular movement prevalent on the web devoted to decadence and indulgent dishes, like pizza fried in duck fat.
The more serious nose-to-tail eating philosophy being embraced by chefs plays a role too; old traditions are being dusted off for inspiration and economic sense. Likewise, home cooks are hunkering down in harsher times and cooking more, allowing nothing to go to waste. Introduced to Bastien’s duck three years ago, Nathalie Spielmann, a marketing PhD student and avid food blogger, cooks it regularly, reserving the rendered fat to use all over, even rounding out her bouillabaisse with a touch. Smitten, she readily rattles off a list of reasons for loving everything duck. Karine Garcia, a caterer, also recuperates the liquid gold, brushing it on phyllo dough to make a savoury strudel. Eric Gregor-Pearse, a teacher who enjoys perusing food blogs, is hooked on hash browns and a jalapeno-smoked pork belly cornbread featuring duck fat.
Whether familiar with it or not, people interviewed were passionate on the subject, eager to share their stories, or plainly curious. Vendors at Montreal’s Jean Talon market report that shoppers are indeed more sophisticated and adventurous than ever. Back in aprons on their spare time, they are no longer scared to tackle dishes like confit or to throw some duck fat into their saucepan or vinaigrette. Alex Jippa, a nine-to-fiver whose hobby is wine, recently purchased his first tub, being won over by a friend’s recipe for oven-roasted French fries. Potato magic was a recurring theme with the average market goer. Typically wide eyed and salivating at the thought, they exclaimed in pitched voices, things like “Magique!”, “Facilement bon!” or “Cochon!”
Germaine Ying Gee Wong, a film producer and gourmand, has found many more uses, sautéing everything from steak to vegetables in duck fat, relying on it to boost flavour in bland dishes. Elsa Moreau is married to a guy who loves to hunt and drop her with his prize, so it is her choice for braising lean game meats, and to add a light, silkiness to her caribou ‘cretons’. My partner, François Brouillard, says he realized early on how easy it was to make something killer with duck fat to woo the ladies, and claims it has served him well. Similarly, I have turned the most squeamish diners onto gizzards this way, which is hardly clever; I bet cardboard could be made a delicacy with enough time snuggled up to duck fat. Stephanie Simard, a waitress and wise mother of two, reminded me of yet another secret weapon behind the appeal – aromatherapy; “the way it makes the house smell is the best welcoming gift, a way to win over the in laws if there ever was”.
Above all, it is clearly the Quebec “joie de vivre” that has opened the doors to duck fat. Cooks and eaters, from the old school to the avant-garde, rave romantically about it, seduced by the taste and titillating possibilities, soothed by the comfort of old-fashioned simple pleasures. Any health talk was just music to their ears. The beneficial fat profile is bonus.
No wonder duck fat is hot. Irresistible, versatile, and easy to use, it is tried and true, good for the heart and for the soul. Why not add a little crackle to your cooking with a splash? Pour a glass of red wine on the side for good measure, and a toast is in order - to deliciousness, and to our ancestors who knew better than the nutritionists – Cheers!
Duck fat pie dough, Duck fat potato frittata, Easy duck confit
References and links:
“Study sings the Praises of Duck Fat..”, Molly O’Neil, Albany times Union, 1991
“The duck stops here: duck fat is more like olive oil than it is like butter or beef”, Molly O’Neil, New York Times, 1992
“Fat from fowl is worth a gander, restaurant chefs use duck and goose fat”, U.S. News & World Report, 2000
“And Finally a Word about Duck Fat”, Washington Post article, 2002
John Bastien, Morgan farms: www.fermemorgan.com
“Fat”, Jennifer McLagan: http://www.jennifermclagan.com/book_fat.htm
“Nourishing Traditions”, Sally Fallon: http://www.westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/index.html
“The Truth about Saturated Fat” on my website in Miscellaneous Articles
“French Women don’t get fat”: http://www.mireilleguiliano.com/
“The Gospel of Food – Everything you think yo know about food is wrong”, Barry Glassner
Martin Picard/ Au pied de Cochon: http://www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca/
Les Jardins Sauvages: www.jardinssauvages.com