How can you mess up duck?

Mary and I were in Montreux recently and stopped to have lunch on the water at Cafe Bellagio. The setting was worth the entire price of the fixed price lunch. The food wasn’t dire, but Mary ordered the duck and they really messed it up. It was breast, extremely rare with skin on. The thing is, the skin had been cooked all of about 10 seconds. It’s one thing for the meat to be almost bloody rare, but the skin needs to be crisp – isn’t that the point of duck? – and the process of doing that melts away that thick layer of fat that otherwise you have also served up, raw, to the diner. What she got served was impossible to cut and would have been disgusting to eat.

Just to make sure I was on firm ground here, since I haven’t cooked duck for a few years, I bought a duck breast and cooked it for lunch today. I put it skin down in a non-stick pan at medium-high heat and kept an eye on it while making a salad. Turned it over now and again, cut it in half at some point and stood the middle, quite raw parts so they sat down in the pan to sear them, then back on the skin side. The fat melts into the pan, the skin becomes crisp and it is up to you to decide how well done you want the meat. The skin will be happy with about any amount of cooking. I ended up with something the common side of rare, which was just what I wanted.

As well as the salad, I’d mixed together a bowl of fig chutney, sweet chilli sauce, a teasp of honey and some old but nonetheless extremely sharp Spanish sherry vinegar. When the duck was done, I added this concoction to the pan, mixed it into the duck fat (latest advice is that it’s good for you) and then served it as a sauce next to the duck pieces. Precise quantities to taste. This was a random collection of ingredients, just what came out of the cupboard when I put my hand in, but it was good. Sweet, hot and sour – a bit of all these and you can’t go wrong.

So, let me reword that question. I can see from this restaurant experience how you can mess up duck. But why would you mess up duck? That is a mystery to me.

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