recipe

Credit: Photography by Earl Carter

Duck breasts stuffed with prunes

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photography by Earl Carter

As the monotony of coronavirus seems to put life on repeat, there are many things we are all missing. For me, and my friends and customers, the travel question remains scratchy. Months ago it was a question of when; now we wonder about the prospect of travel outside of Australia at all. This somewhat fatalistic view can be lightened a little when we turn to food: there is nothing like it to bring happy memories and experiences flooding back.

A few years ago I was involved in leading a small tour group to the south-west of France. We were based in the Gascony region, where duck, geese, prunes, apples and Armagnac abound. The season was autumn, when the markets were full and the weather was mild. We travelled here and there to eclectic destinations – beautiful villages, Armagnac producers in mediaeval buildings, sports cafes, workers’ cafes, flea markets, restaurants, a living museum of orchard fruit and food markets. We ate, we cooked, we laughed and chatted.

The week started with our host procuring an enormous loaf of bread. It was an incredible loaf – le pain des amis, the bread of friends – with the grains grown and milled by a neighbour of our host. As the week wore on – this loaf lasted and lasted – the marvellous sourdough went from being the accompaniment to meats and cheese, to being lightly toasted and rubbed with garlic and served with a soup made from fat and ripe beefsteak tomatoes.

Its final appearance was under woodfired duck breast, when it was at its most delicious. The little outside wood oven reached fearsome temperatures of up to and above 250ºC. The duck breasts were enormous and could easily feed two people as a main course. They were stuffed with mi-cuit prunes, a not fully dried version, readily available in the region. Seasoned with salt and pepper on both sides, the duck was placed on a rack on the oven. Underneath the rack was a baking dish lined with slices of bread. As the duck fat and juices collected, the bread toasted, or even fried, in the process. Once the breasts were cooked, they rested a little and were sliced onto the toast and served with a sharply dressed green salad.

At the moment, I am drawn to this dish and dishes like it. It seems to satisfy my restlessness for travel and new experiences. I have adjusted the recipe to suit an entree and also the style of duck meat we have available here. The dish is different from the original, yet familiar. Like a lingering tune, it takes me to where I have once been and to where I would like to go again.

Ingredients

Magret de canard farci aux pruneaux

(Duck breasts stuffed with prunes)

Serves 4 as an entree

  • 8 soft prunes, stones removed
  • 50ml Armagnac or cognac
  • 2 large duck breasts, about
  • 240g each
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 thick slices of a sturdy country bread
Method
  1. Soak the prunes in the Armagnac or cognac overnight.
  2. Make a pocket in the duck breasts by piercing them with a long knife down the length of the fillet.
  3. Stuff the prunes in the pocket, four per breast.
  4. Score the skin three or four times.
  5. Generously salt and pepper the whole breast.
  6. Preheat oven to 210ºC.
  7. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan to quite hot and in it place the breasts, skin-side down. The skin needs to cook to a rich golden brown, without burning, to render some of the fat away. Cook for seven minutes, monitoring closely, as you may need to tip some of the rendered fat out of the pan during this stage. Turn over to seal the flesh side quickly.
  8. Arrange the bread slices in a baking tray, then place on the lower shelf of the oven. Place the duck fillets directly on the oven rack over the bread. Cook for seven minutes – the flesh should be medium rare.
  9. Remove the bread and the duck from the oven. Rest the meat for at least five minutes and then slice and arrange on the toast.
  10. Serve with sharply dressed green leaves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Lovingly rendered".

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Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.