Right now, I am reading Across the River and into the Trees: Hemingway’s novel about the war-scarred American colonel and the beautiful Venetian countess. There is this passage in the book, where they talk about roast duck – wild duck from the lagoon. It’s little more than a passing remark, barely a couple of lines and of no great narrative import; but I, as you know, have a thing for food and for words and for Venice (and as it turns out, duck too) so it struck some kind of a chord with me. ‘I never knew anything could be so wonderful to eat’ the Venetian says to the Colonel (about the duck), ‘when your teeth close on the small slice of meat it is an almost unbelievable delight.’ And so, now I find myself craving duck. Craving unbelievable delight.
Each year when summer comes, my husband, Anthony, takes his little boat out into the lagoon to explore. He is gone for hours at a time, sometimes the whole day. He comes back salty and sandy, often sunburnt, always pretty happy. And with some new little nugget about lagoon life that we relish dissecting together over the dinner. I particularly like hearing about his culinary adventures: where he stopped off for lunch, what he ate, how it was cooked, and so forth. The food and the restaurants which you find in the open lagoon, you see, are like nothing that you see in Venice proper. They’re wild and menu-less – you eat what was caught that morning, or what the cook fancied eating himself; it’s proper rustic, rough and ready, home cooking. It’s good.
Sometimes I join Anthony on his boat trips, and when I do, one of our favourite spots to eat is on the island of Mazzorbo. It’s quiet there, the houses are pretty and colourful and it makes for a peaceful respite from the bustle of the city. There’s not much to the island: an old church, a crooked bell-tower, a vineyard and a cluster of charming restaurants, of which the aptly named Ai Cacciatori (lit. translation: ‘At the Hunters’) and Alla Maddalena are our two favourites. There, they ply us with seafood, cooked many ways, and white table wine and then we head home, well sated and slightly tipsy, in our little boat. And every time, as we make the journey back across the lagoon, on that last trip in late September, as summer is drawing to an end, we make a promise to return in the winter for the duck, their famous duck.
The ducks come from Northern Europe: they migrate over to our little corner of the world sometime in early November, and settle in the marshes around Mazzorbo. Their arrival signals the start of the winter cold and the hunting season. Every year the same, like clockwork. It’s nothing grand, the duck-hunting, it is not a proper industry or an organised sporting event: it’s a few guys in old boats with guns and a deep understanding of the ways of the lagoon. The wild duck meat, sweet and lean, is the tradition and the birthright of their island, just as lace is for the island of Burano and glass for Murano. You can’t buy the birds for love nor money in Venice proper – the hunters like to keep them to cook in their own kitchens. So if you want to eat the wild duck, you have to brave the bitter winter winds and make the journey to Mazzorbo. Which, in truth, is no great torture – rather a very lovely day out. With Hemingway’s words ringing in my ears, that is what we did: we rode the vaporetto to Mazzorbo one lazy Sunday, and settled on Alla Maddalena for our lunch, for no other reason than because Ai Cacciatori was closed.
We discussed at length the matter of the duck – the waiter, Anthony and I, all three of us relishing in the minutiae of how the bird had been caught and how it would be cooked. It was elected that we should begin with a primo (first course) of a nice duck ragù. I would have my sauce with the gnocchi (‘very light gnocchi, signora’ the waiter reassured me) and Anthony would have his with the pappardelle (a more classic combination). Then we moved on to the question of the main: more duck, naturally. This time lightly roasted, on the stovetop with a little white wine, plenty of herbs and its own liver for extra flavour. The same for both of us.
It made for a dreamy lunch, our duck-followed-by-duck: leisurely and protracted. The winter sun shone in on us through the windows, and the skies were so clear that you could see the form of the Dolomite mountains emerging out of the water far off in the distance. As lunch progressed, the restaurant began to fill up, as elegant old ladies in fur coats and gentlemen donning tweed caps joined us in the dining room. Some from Venice like us, others from the surrounding islands; all of us eating duck, all of us making a pilgrimage to celebrate its ‘season’. All, somehow, very Hemingway. When we had finished eating, the waiter suggested we might enjoy a dolce with our coffee and produced an exquisite crostata dello strudel, freshly baked and still warm from the oven. The perfect close to a nigh on perfect meal.
Perhaps by that same peculiarity whereby when I read a great American novel, I end up fixating on the food, so it is that when I have a really good meal out, I am overcome by the urge to recreate it at home. Eating well makes me want to cook. Of course, back in Venice proper, in the city centre, I can’t get my hands on the wild duck – not that duck. But still, my butcher will supply me with nice, plump farmed duck, and that works well too: a little fattier perhaps, but delicious none the less.
As I set about cooking at home, the first challenge, was the ragù. I made my sauce using only the ducks’ legs (the tastiest part of the bird), with white wine and a little broth. No tomatoes as you might expect in a sauce of this kind, but armfuls of fresh herbs. Then I let it simmer in the pot for as long as I could possibly bear. I am an impatient cook, but I do know that the secret to a good ragù is nothing more than time. And it really was worth the wait. We ate the sauce with some lovely egg pappardelle. Then, for the main: a whole duck stuffed with pear and grapes and citrus, as per a recipe that I happened upon in a cookbook so old that the pages have begun to turn yellow. I roasted the duck in the oven, so that the skin was crispy, crispy and the meat just pink. Then we ate it with the fruits of its stuffing, juicy and plump, and a few roasted grapes.
For dessert, of course, the crostata with its ‘strudel’ filling of cooked apple and sweet raisins. My pastry was not nearly so fine as that which we ate at Alla Maddalena, and for the filling – I didn’t take the time stew the apples or the pears for hours as the waiter at the restaurant had advised that I do (as I said, I am an impatient cook!). Instead I chopped the fruit, and tossed it into the pastry as is, sprinkled with a little sugar, a squeeze of orange, and a few breadcrumbs to soak up the juices. And baked it all in the oven: the result was comforting and warming, sweet and evocative. If not quite ‘unbelievable delight’, damn close enough for me.
PS I was thrilled to contribute a piece on my favourite restaurants in Venice for Vanity Fair UK this month. Just in case it takes your fancy you can find a copy of the article here… Xx
Pappardelle con Ragù di Anatra in Bianco
(Pappardelle with a White Wine Duck Ragù)
If you are making this ragù with with farmed duck, rather than wild duck you will find the meat to be a little fattier. To keep the sauce light, spoon off and discard the excess fat left in the pan after searing the legs and before adding the chopped vegetables. You can make this sauce ahead of time and freeze for up to three months, or just store in the fridge for a couple of days and reheat before serving.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 2 hours
1tbsp olive oil
4 duck legs
2 celery stalks
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic
good sized bunch of sage
good sized bunch of rosemary
good sized bunch of thyme
2 bay leaves
250ml white wine
1.5l chicken broth
Drizzle the oil into a large, heavy based casserole and set on a medium to high heat. Season the duck legs with a little salt and pepper, then arrange them in the dish skin side down. Cook for roughly 7 mins, until golden brown on the skin side, then turn them over for another 3-4 mins on the other side.
While the legs are searing, finely chop the celery, onion and carrot, and peel the garlic. When the duck legs are browned on both sides, lift them out of the pan and set them to one side on a dish. Toss the chopped vegetables and the whole cloves of garlic into the pan, and lower the heat. Roughly chop the herbs and add them to the pot also. Cook, stirring regularly, for 7-8 mins until the vegetables soften and the onion becomes translucent. Pour in the white wine and the broth, and turn the heat up to high to bring to the boil, then return the duck legs to the pot. Now lower the heat to keep on a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 1 1/2 – 2hrs, until the duck meat becomes mouthwateringly tender. Remove the duck from the pot and set to one side until it is cool enough to touch. Meanwhile, turn the heat up on the sauce and reduce until thick. Tear the skin off the duck and discard it, then shred the meat with a fork, and toss it back into the casserole dish, lower the heat and simmer gently for a further 15-20 mins, giving the sauce a good stir now and then.
Fill a medium sized saucepan with cold water, add a pinch of water and set on a medium to high heat until the water comes to a boil, add the pasta to the water and lower the heat a little so that the pot doesn’t boil over. Cook for 7-8 mins or as per the instructions on the box, drain, drizzle the pasta with a little oil and add to the sauce. Give it all a good toss and serve while still piping hot.
Anatra Arrosto con Pere e Uva
(Roast Duck with Pear and Sweet Grapes)
This dish is inspired by the recipe for papero con l’ùa in Il Cibo delle Feste by Pierluigi Ceolin. You will find that a lot of fat accumulates in the roasting tray as you cook the bird. To make sure that the skin stays crisp, I roast the duck on a roasting rack. If you don’t have one, just put the duck on the top wire shelf in your oven, and put a roasting tray on the shelf just beneath to catch all the fatty juices. When the bird is done, collect the juices and store in the fridge – you can use them to roast potatoes!
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 1 hr 45 mins – 2 hrs
750g- 1kg of grapes
Pierce the skin of the duck all over with a fork. Fill two kettles with water and bring to the boil, set the duck on a wire rack in the sink and pour the boiling water over it. Pat dry with a paper towel and set in a roasting tray. Peel the lemon, core and slice the pear and stuff them into the bird’s cavity, then fill the rest of the cavity with grapes and set the bird in the fridge for 1-2 hrs. This will help dry out the skin so that it turns nice and crispy when you roast it.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees centigrade. Rub the skin of the bird with salt generously and all over, then lay the bird on a wire roasting rack in a roasting tin and set in the hot oven. Roast for 1 hr 45 mins – 2 hrs until the juices run clean, then leave the bird to rest for 15 mins before serving. Fill a small roasting tray with the remaining grapes and just as you are about to take the duck out of the oven, put them on the top shelf to roast for 15-20 mins, just long enough so that they tenderise and their skins begin to split. Joint the bird and eat the meat with the pear stuffing and roasted grapes.
Crostata allo Strudel
(Apple and Pear ‘Strudel’ Pie)
Prep Time: 25 mins
Cook Time: 40 mins
Note: allow 2-3 hours for the pastry to rest in the fridge before baking the tart, this will help prevent it from shrinking in the oven.
FOR THE PASTRY
200g cold butter
60g caster sugar
generous pinch of salt
FOR THE FILLING
100g muscovado sugar
FOR THE SUGAR GLAZE
1 tbsp double cream
1-2 tbsps caster sugar
Roughly chop the butter into small cubes and toss into a medium sized mixing bowl; sift in the flour, sugar and salt, and rub with your fingers until it takes on the consistency of sand. Crack the eggs in and use your hands to bring the dough together, add a little water if you find the texture to be too dry. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 2-3 hours, or better still, overnight.
Before baking the pie, preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Grease a 22cm wide pie dish. Core and roughly chop the apples and the pears, then toss them into a mixing bowl, add the raisins, sprinkle with sugar and breadcrumbs and combine. Then squeeze in the the juice and zest of half the orange, and mix again. Take the pastry out of the fridge, tear it in half and roll it out into two large circles, roughly 1cm thick. Gently lift the first circle of pastry into the dish and press it down the crevices, leaving a generous overhang over the top. Spoon the filling into the pastry case and spread it out evenly. Use a sharp knife to cut the second round of pastry into thin strips that are roughly 1.5cm wide and a few centimetres longer than the diameter of the pie and arrange them over the top of the pie in a lattice pattern. Fold the excess pastry round the rim of the dish over the ends of the lattice strips, press down with your thumb and seal. Crack the egg into a small bowl and lightly beat with the cream, then use a pastry brush to glaze it onto the top pf the pie, sprinkle with the sugar so that it goes golden brown when baked. Set in the oven and bake for 35-40 mins.