Arts & Culture

If It Bleeds Like a Duck...

A Laurentian twist on a French delicacy

saint-jovite — Crouching on a pair of lion’s legs on the flambé table of Restaurant Le Cheval de Jade is a half-metre-high silver contraption topped with a giant screw and wheel. “This,” says chef Olivier Tali, “is the pièce de résistance.” The object of his pride, which resembles some medieval torture device, is a rare French duckling press. Amid the lace and linen of this dining room in the Laurentian Mountains just north of Montreal, Tali has just sliced the breasts off a roast duck and chopped the carcass in three. He deposits the pieces in a stout silver cup and slips it into the press.

Clad in the traditional white chef’s toque and jacket, Tali is preparing caneton à la rouennaise. The press was specially devised to extract the three-century-old delicacy’s secret ingredient: blood. The story goes that in olden days, some of the live ducks packed onto boats and transported down the local river for slaughter would suffocate en route. Unwilling to waste good fowl, a parsimonious chef cooked them anyway and found that they tasted superior to those beheaded, since the asphyxiated ducks retained their blood. A legendary meal was born.

And soon after, so was the duck press. Crafted mostly by Parisian jewellers, the ornate devices don’t come cheap: Tali’s, bought in southern France for $8,000 in 2005, dates to the early 1900s, and a new one now goes for about $28,000. “The lion’s feet show it was made for a chef in Normandy,” he explains; the dish is named for the region’s historical capital, where it’s a specialty. Presses with duck feet were crafted for restaurants in Brittany, and Tali has seen elephant legs on those bound for India. There are only about 100 duckling presses in existence, and Le Cheval is the only restaurant in Canada with caneton à la rouennaise on the menu.

Tali invites me to turn the wheel. With both hands, I cinch down until forty kilograms of pressure has forced a pink trickle of blood and fat from the carcass into a waiting gravy boat. “Voilà!” The enthusiastic Tali is a member of L’Ordre des Canardiers, an organization with its own anthem and coat of arms, founded in 1986 to protect and promote the dish. L’Ordre takes its work seriously: any variation from the original recipe requires approval. And they aren’t the only ones with a fetish for caneton. For more than a century, the fabled Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent has numbered its birds and presented certificates to diners. According to the restaurant’s visitors’ book, duckling 328 was served to the future Edward vii in 1890, 53,211 to Hirohito in 1921, and 938,451 to Mikhail Gorbachev. It has now passed the 1.2 million mark.

In his cozy house-restaurant on Saint-Jovite’s main street, Tali serves his unique Laurentian duckling to anyone who orders at least a day in advance. In Canada, as in the US and northern Europe, dispatching livestock by strangulation is illegal, so to better retain the locally raised and decapitated duck’s juices it is pre-roasted only lightly. Once the press has done its job, Tali flambés cognac in a saucepan, then adds bordelaise sauce, a shot of port, and lemon juice. With the permission of L’Ordre des Canardiers, the French-born chef has altered the next step: instead of a full scoop of butter, he stirs in half butter, half foie gras. Finally, the duck juice is dribbled in to thicken the mixture.

Before my eyes, Tali sautés the severed breasts to medium rare, slices them thinly, and serves them up blanketed in the velvet sauce. As a finale, he presents me with a certificate to prove I’ve had the authentic rouennaise duckling experience. The verdict? An extraordinary meal. Duck 321 did not die in vain.