Most of us associate roast duck with the large, very plump birds bred for the table. Their thick layer of fat keeps their meat delicious and moist, and can also be crisped up delightfully for dishes such as duck confit, or Chinese crispy duck pancakes. The mallard, however, is a very different specimen. It is, essentially, the duck that you will probably have fed in the park as a child. Though still retaining that characteristic layer of fat, it is much smaller than farmed ducks, with much denser, gamier meat. It is also much leaner, meaning it has a tendency to dry out if simply roasted. However, it has its advantages: its strong flavour means it works even better than farmed duck with typical duck-friendly ingredients, especially fruit. As the quince season is drawing to a close, I figured it would be a good idea to make the most of this excellent fruit by pairing it with the dense, dark meat of a wild duck.
Working from a recipe from Game: A Cookbook, I pot-roasted the legs of the ducks for an hour and a half to ensure the meat wasn't tough. I will pause a minute to show off my latest kitchen acquisition, a proper, cast-iron, Le Creuset casserole dish. In teal. A classic emblem of middle-class domesticity, and one which I am proud to possess. The matching salt pig is perhaps even more risibly middle-class - most people I have spoken to don't even know what a salt pig is. I still don't know why it's called that - any ideas?
So. I fried some streaky bacon in the pan until it released its fat, then put in the duck legs, skin side down. After a few minutes of lovely sizzling noises, I removed them from the pan, and put in some chopped garlic and shallots. These cooked for a minute or so, and then in went a bottle of cider, some tomato puree, three star anise, a couple of bay leaves, and some honey.
The duck legs went back in the pan, I paused to admire the sheer beauty of those turquoise curves, and then everything bubbled away happily for an hour, after which time I peeled and sliced the quinces and added them to the liquid too, with a bit more water to keep everything covered.
The duck breasts are cooked separately, to keep them rare and moist. I cooked them like I'd normally cook a farmed duck breast - very hot pan, skin side down, until the skin has crisped up, then a few minutes on the other side, then into a hot oven for about 10-15 minutes. This gives the quinces time to soften in the sauce. My duck breast was actually on the done side; I should probably not have erred on the side of caution and put it back in when it started leeching blood. I always forget that meat continues to cook once it's out of the oven, and I have an odd preference for very bloody meat. I wonder if I'm anaemic.
This didn't seem to matter though; the breast meat was lovely and soft, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture and a deep, grainy flavour that worked perfectly with the sweet quince slices. The leg meat is rich in flavour and moist from the casserole treatment. The star anise and tomato cut through the sweetness of the sauce, and it's a perfect harmony of rich game, subtle aniseed notes, acidity, and sweet fruit. It's good with couscous, though I reckon mashed potato, rice, or polenta would all work well. Any bland carbohydrate, really, that will absorb the delicious sauce and meat juices. A handful of watercress is good, too, as its pepperiness will contrast nicely with the rich sauce.