Like a duck to water

Chinese Crispy Duck has been voted Britain’s third favourite food, pipping Chicken Tikka. Ducks, once a peasant winter staple, are now bred on a massive scale. Simon Ford goes in search of those that don’t look like UFOs.

 The power of a popular saying lies in its truth. Ducks really do take to water; you only have to watch their sheer exuberance when they encounter it to know it. They also need water to thrive; unfortunately each year nearly twenty million UK raised ducks are denied it. Their arid existence is a scandal on a par with, if not exceeding, the fate we inflict on the factory farmed chicken. So far there have been few campaigns on its behalf.

The duck is not really designed for land. Imagine a duck, try to draw it. It is long odds on that you have placed its feet in the centre of its body. In fact the feet appear too far back along its frame towards the tail, hence the awkward carriage of duck on land. Flat footed and clumsy on dry ground, its webbed feet become powerful propellers afloat. A domestic duck will unerringly waddle to any body of water no matter how small and promptly dive in. This love of water applies as keenly to its wild mallard cousin, there are few more beautiful sights than a winter flight of ducks; an amphibious bomber command in arrow formation, high in the sky using the last light to scout a stretch of water to roost.

A flight through winter light is as far as you can imagine from the fate of factory-farmed ducks. An eating duckling will live for less than fifty days. If it is barn reared it will never see open water, it will be fed a high protein dry feed in a temperature and light controlled environment, and its only access to water will be tiny beads of water via a nipple drinker. Ducks naturally drink a lot and constantly seek to immerse their heads and necks to fully clean themselves. This enthusiastic washing is part of the process which means they can then lightly oil their feathers from their preen gland and so waterproof themselves. Another facet of their character neatly nailed by a popular saying, ‘like water off a duck’s back’. Without access to water ducks are also prone to eye diseases. Apparently some factory producers now add an enzyme to the ducks drinking water designed to reduce their consumption of water.

With cruel irony, in death the duckling sees much more water. It is plunged into a hot bath to be wet plucked. Typically it is then squeezed tightly into plastic wrapping before being despatched to the supermarket. You may be familiar with the sight of the euphemistically named ‘farm fresh frozen duckling’ in the freezer compartment. To me it resembles a super sized condom, turgid in its frozen state, but as it melts it becomes a water-sodden UFO, unnaturally white with damp flaccid skin.

Despite all this (or perhaps because most peoples don’t know it), duck is gaining in popularity. We now eat nearly twenty million a year, it‘s no staple but features in some of our favourite dishes. Duck a l’orange may these days be a retro joke but Chinese crispy fried duck has been voted Britain’s third favourite food, pipping Chicken Tikka.

In modern times a reputation for fattiness held it back. In reality it is easy to render the fat away. The bulk of it lies just beneath the skin; it is there to help both buoyancy and insulation useful if you spend most of your time splashing in cold water, as well as being a useful energy reserve when food supplies are thin. There is no marbling of the fat through the meat so the lean is, well, exactly that. In any case we don’t need to worry; in the South West of France duck (and goose) grease is the main source of cooking fat. A regime of duck fat and red wine adds up to a longevity that outstrips those on the olive oil diets of the Mediterranean.

But as with any food consumed on a vast scale huge modern businesses step in to feed us at minimum cost. As ever, there is as little attention to animal welfare as they can legally get away with. Cherry Valley Ducks quaintly named but a Malaysian owned multi-national, turns over £39 million pounds annually, and produces 75% of all ducks eaten here. Their name means more to ducks than Bernard Mathews does to turkeys. A hugely successful business, now exporting their carefully bred strains of Peking ducks worldwide and especially to China. One estimate is that annually 40 million Chinese table ducks come from Cherry Valley stock. Ninety per cent of their British ducks are reared in barns but fortunately for these inmates, their website states that they “are even treated with a measure of affection.” So that’s all right then.

Most of these ducks end up as Chinese Crispy Duck in pancakes. It is on the menu in nearly five thousand Chinese restaurants in the UK and now the dish has become a supermarket lunch time or ready meal staple. The pancake wrap, crisp skin, moist meat, crunchy cucumber, spring onions and finally something to cut through the richness. Plum sauce providing a fruity foil which serves the same purpose as the traditional orange. It is superficially a very attractive combination – although completely inauthentic. Another of those British invented dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala. A stranger in its homeland, it is also not very good for you. Frying the duck in cheap cooking oil replaces most of the good duck fat with dodgy trans fats while weight for weight it has more calories than a deep fried Mars bar.

It is a world away from the real roast duck of China and even further from the proper Peking duck, a dish you should try, at least once, instead of its crispy cousin. Authentically the bird would be slow roasted over fruit wood charcoal. The fat would melt away leaving a deep mahogany skin barely connected to the meat. A recipe I once tried advocated inflating a pre-simmered duck with a bicycle pump to aid this separation. It worked, but I am glad there were no witnesses in the kitchen.

So far, so upsetting, if like me you love eating duck. It may just be the association with Chinese flavouring but it has a deeply savoury taste. It is as if it has heightened quantities of the hard to define, but very real, taste ‘umami’. This is the taste sensation that exists alongside the hot, sweet, sour and bitter tastes we are more familiar with, which when it is present seems to heighten the taste of anything in your mouth.

A carefully cooked duck breast even has a ‘steaky’ quality that few beefsteaks can match. Cooked, rested then sliced, each mouthful topped with a crescent of crisped skin, the flesh rosy and tender it is always one of the first dishes I eat in France. Eating the ‘magret’ like this is actually quite a recent culinary development – large breasts being a by-product of foie gras production. But it has become a tradition for me.

In the past the older plumper duck would be despatched in the autumn, jointed, lightly salted and gently cooked in its copious fat, they were a peasant winter staple. Preserved as ‘confit’ in Kilner jars, the meat is beautifully tender and the skin quickly crisps up in the frying pan or the oven. The fat then makes the second best roast or fried potatoes you can eat. (Goose narrowly pips its waterfowl cousin). The spring duckling often found itself in a stew of summer vegetables, namely the sublime combination of young peas and baby carrots and onions in “canard aux petit pois”.

Water is the duck’s friend in life but its enemy in the kitchen. Chinese ducks are painted with a marinade of soy, sugar and ginger and then hung up to dry. As a fifteen year old I was determined to make Chinese roast duck and spent an entire afternoon drying a suspended duck with my mum’s hairdryer. The skin was brilliant but the hairdryer’s element burnt out.

The one exception to avoiding water with duck cuisine, is a technique for great roast. Gently simmer the bird for 15 minutes before roasting. Simmering gives off a slightly unpleasant fug but means the bird will remain succulent after a long roasting, while the skin will crisp. Even here though before going in the oven you must scrupulously dry the bird and salt the skin.

I went in search of good ethical duck. There are of course small and organic producers who will sell you superb bespoke ducks, who have had a life time’s acquaintance with water. For example Providence Farm supplies beautiful Devonshire Dazzlers by mail order. But we are also fortunate that here in the West Country we have one of the most innovative and ambitious duck farmers. I wanted to find out from him if farming ducks on a large scale could be reconciled with eating them with a clean conscience.

James Coleman farms near Crediton in Devon, he is the youngest son of Peter and Sue whose family business, Creedy Carvers, are well known for growing and processing chicken, but he is the duck man. In 2002 he started with just twenty five newly hatched ducklings under an infra red lamp and is now producing three thousand top quality table birds a week. Allowing his ducks to take to water lies at the heart of his system.

When you meet him his zeal for his ducks shines through; almost before we shook hands he was telling me in amazed tones that last weekend, a quiet night out had been ruined when he discovered that his local pub was selling duck not produced by him. You got the feeling they wouldn’t be making that mistake again. He says, “I may not be the biggest duck farmer in the country but I will be the best” and being the best means giving his free range ducks the water they desire. He has invented a sophisticated system of fresh water ponds for his ducks to play in.

Little wonder that he has been NFU Young Farmer of the Year. He is trying to make this a business that works and is very clear that it is possible to combine high welfare with being profitable.

For him allowing ducks to do what comes naturally results in happier birds and better tasting meat. Visiting the free-range paddocks on a rainy winter’s day you immediately see how different the life of his free range ducks are from those reared in barns. Standing amongst fifteen hundred ducklings in a large paddock, it doesn’t feel crowded. The flock sleep in a large airy barn and have easy access to outside. There is none of the nonsense of birds being given technical freedom to wander outside but then having such small exits that they can’t or don’t bother to do so, especially as that means leaving their food behind. These ducks wouldn’t stay inside anyway because as well as grasses to graze on the birds have their own purpose built swimming area. They take it in turns to leap in and wash themselves as it is constantly replenished with fresh water. The pool itself is buried and surrounded by slatted plastic and a further layer of stones to ensure proper drainage and to prevent the ground becoming a mud bath.

It is a comical sight to watch the ducks queue around the edge of their pond, as one gets out another leaps in. What is striking here is how the eternal sight of white farmyard ducks in water is in alliance with 21st century farming efficiency.

There are trees planted and the grass is in good condition, and the birds wander around in large flocks throughout the whole field. James is no sentimentalist, he still supplies barn-reared ducks because he says some established customers simply won’t accept the 10p premium per kilo that comes with a duck given access to real water. But you get the feeling that he knows that his free range paddocks produce ducks that taste better because they are allowed to display some of their natural behaviour.

It is important not to be misty-eyed, these ducklings have been bred to grow very fast and even here they only experience a few weeks with access to water. While they still have yellow down for the first month of their life they are kept inside.

James has experimented with different strains of duck that grow a little slower but says they didn’t taste as good. So he has reverted to a variety that although genetically determined to mature in less than forty nine days, will grow slightly more slowly if fed a less high protein food. They get an extra week to take the water at the duck spa.

There is another popular saying ‘if I had ducks they would drown’. It captures the despair of finding things just aren’t going your way. There is no doubt the table duck has been out of luck for some time. But after a visit to James Coleman there is no doubt that for his free range ducks, at least their luck has begun to turn.