Duck confit and ventrèche
There is something magical about the relationship between flesh, salt and fat. Long before refrigeration and factory farming, there was a time and a place for the life of an animal to end and its flesh to be preserved for the coming months. Few peasants could afford the luxury of feeding beasts over winter so only the breeding stock would be spared. The rest would be slaughtered and time-honoured techniques would then be used to turn the meat into food that would keep over the coming months. I have a great fondness for two such types of preserved meat from the Gascony region of France: duck leg confit and ventrèche.
Confit, the more recognisable of the two, is often thought of as a restaurant dish, yet it is very easy to prepare at home. Confit refers to the process of slow cooking and storing food in fat. It comes from a French word that means “preserved”. In the confit method, meats are first salted to draw out some of the moisture. They are then cooked in fat for a long time at low temperatures. This renders tough cuts such as duck legs more tender, and when stored in duck fat in a cool place, they last all winter.
A little side secret of Gascon cooking is garlic confit. Slowly simmering garlic cloves in duck fat takes the punch out of garlic, rendering it more mellow and making it perfect to spread onto sliced baguette or to whip into a potato purée.
And what is ventrèche? Very simply, it is an unsmoked, salt-cured pork from south-western France, where it is a staple. It is made from pork belly – ventre means belly in French – that has been cured with salt and then rubbed with pepper before hanging to dry.
It can be kept in slab form, so that the fat is mostly on one side, or rolled tightly into a log so that the fat and muscle spiral evenly around each other. This is one of the rare pieces of charcuterie that needs to be cooked before eating and is an absolute staple in the recipes of Gascony. Cut into lardons, ventrèche is the perfect start to so many recipes; it adds flavour and depth to daubes, cassoulet, coq au vin and any soup or stew. For the home cook who likes to know a little more than the basics about where their food is coming from, it is the ideal way to select a piece of pork from a source you trust and cure it at home, rather than buying some chunk of meat, shrink wrapped in the supermarket with a provenance completely unknown.
And finally a working knowledge of how to render duck fat is an adjunct to these two processes, as it is now readily available to purchase. It is a very valuable skill to have. If you are ever in a position to be preparing a couple of ducks or can purchase some duck “trim”, rendered fat completes your basic Gascon pantry.
Carefully remove all of the skin and fat from the duck, cutting close to but avoiding the meat. Once removed, cut into chunks of about two centimetres.
Place the cut skin into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Pour about a cup of water over the skin. Simmer over medium-low heat, turning the bits of skin occasionally, until the water has evaporated and the skin has fully crisped and released its fat. This process should take about an hour. As the fat renders and the water evaporates, the mixture may hiss or spatter. It will turn from a milky white liquid to clear. This is perfectly normal. With a slotted spoon you can remove the cracklings and drain in a bowl lined with paper towel. Cool a little and sprinkle with sea salt, as these can be used to add a little crunch to a salad. Allow the liquid fat to cool slightly, then strain into clean, sealable containers using a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Store the duck fat covered in the refrigerator for up to six months or in the freezer for longer.
– 8 duck legs
– 3 tbsp flaked salt
– 8 sprigs thyme
– 2 bay leaves
– 2 garlic cloves, crushed
– 500g rendered duck fat
Lay the duck legs in an impervious baking tray, flesh-side up, and sprinkle with salt, thyme, bay leaves and garlic. Cover with cling wrap and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight. The next day, rinse off and pat dry with a cloth.
Preheat the oven to 140ºC. Melt the duck fat over low heat. Place the legs skin-side up in a baking dish that has them very snugly packed and cover with the melted fat. Place in the oven and cook for about two-and-a-half hours until the duck legs are very tender. Remove from the oven, leave to cool in their fat and refrigerate.
When you are ready to use the legs, either reheat in a non-stick pan over low heat until the flesh is warmed through and the skin crisp, or in an oven preheated to 190ºC in a pan or baking dish. I like my confit with fried potatoes, green beans and a smear of orange marmalade, or shredded through a warm salad of potato, ventrèche, bitter greens and a sharp vinaigrette.
– 500g piece pork belly, skin on
– 30g salt
Rub the pork belly all over with the salt. Place in a non-reactive container, skin-side down. Leave for five days in the refrigerator.
Rinse off the salt, dry and press the meat side into a generous amount of ground black pepper. Either hang in the fridge or roll, tie and hang. This will keep very well for a week and can be frozen for later use.
There are so many things you can do with ventrèche. Use it for a classic Lyonnaise salad. Use it in soups, stews and baked beans. Toss lardons of ventrèche with Swiss chard or pan-roasted slices of pumpkin. Slice thinly and wrap around quail before roasting. The suggestions could go on and on.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Lasting benefits". Subscribe here.