By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Katie Eberts
Muscovy ducks “have charming personalities,” says Cynda Williams. “They’re very hearty and friendly. I enjoy them.” She raises various chickens on her certified organic farm, The Clover Path Garden in Acushnet, but Muscovy is the only duck breed she’s interested in even though they grow more slowly, taking 17 to 22 weeks to be ready for slaughter, when their meat is tastiest.
Muscovies make the best mothers, she says, more responsible than Pekins. Her hens hatch six to eight ducklings at a time in a protected area, their “individual condominiums,” and Williams makes sure each hen gets a walk outside every day: lucky ducks. No industrial incubation for her, where drawers full of eggs are mechanically rotated at regular intervals until they hatch. And her male, Sir Walter Drake, who is never hostile, eats out of her hand. “A handsome fellow!”
It’s not surprising that such ducks, requiring certified organic feed and slaughterhouses, are costly to raise and sell. At this time, since the economic fallout, instead of the forty or so Williams had in the past, private customers who like their full flavor and leaner flesh are waiting for her eight Muscovies to mature.
The Muscovy breed (sometimes called musk duck), whose name has nothing to do with Moscow or musk, comes from the warm climate of South America and Mexico and is a different species from other ducks familiar to us. Large and crested, it has been widely domesticated in other parts of the world, often for cross-breeding.
Most domesticated duck are descended, by selective breeding, from the wild mallard which thrives in cool climates all over the world. The Chinese tamed this duck more than two thousand years ago, where it was highly valued and closely controlled. We know the breed as the Pekin duck. (“Peking,” the method for cooking duck by blowing air between skin and flesh and roasting it with a red lacquered glaze, dates from the late 19th century). The Pekin made its way to the United States in 1873, when nine ducks were brought here and raised on Long Island. What we know as Long Island duckling, now the most popular type and a thriving industry, is descended from those original Pekin ducks.
A brief overview of duck types and varieties is in order. Wild ducks, preferably young, are lean from the exercise of flying and swimming, so usually need moist methods of cooking such as braising or quick roasting. Domesticated ducks are usually under the age of six months, actually ducklings. The thick layer of fat under their skin needs to be rendered for the table. In England, the Norfolk and Aylesbury are favorites. In France the preferred breeds are the small but fine Nantes and the Rouen from Normandy, which is smothered at slaughter to keep the blood; for serving, the carcass is pressed to extract all its juices for the famous dish of pressed duck, caneton à la rouennaise.
In southwestern France, the Moulard is a hybrid of the Pekin and Muscovy, a “mule” duck, i.e. sterile. Males are raised for foie gras, females for meat, their legs preserved for confit (see below) and important in cassoulet, their breasts for magret, where the meat is grilled or sautéed and served rare. In the countryside one sees duck farms everywhere, like sheep in Ireland, and the duck population is overtaking that of geese. The industry is so important to the region that there is a slang word, paletot, “overcoat,” for the duck and goose carcasses from which the livers have been removed for foie gras. Country people there have long used duck or goose fat as their basic cooking fat and for spreading on bread, like lard in Eastern Europe, butter in Britain, and olive oil in the Mediterranean.
On this continent early American settlers and colonists found an abundance of wild ducks which they used for meat, eggs, and also feathers. Those they brought over on ship, if not eaten during the crossing, sometimes crossed with indigenous birds. The Mallard, Teal, Wood duck, and Widgeon were favorites, among others, but also the canvasback, which was lucky not to be hunted to extinction, like the passenger pigeon.
John James Audubon closely observed these ducks in his travels through the American wilderness in the 19th century looking for species to draw, and described them in his journals. He saw that the blue-winged Teal could be tamed easily if fed cornmeal in captivity. “So tender and savoury is its flesh,” he wrote, “that it would quickly put the merits of the widely celebrated Canvass-backed duck in the shade.” The young mallard provided “savoury morsels,” and “when old gives us eggs.” Elsewhere he observed that “the hybrids produced between the Mallard and the Muscovy Duck are of great size and afford excellent eating,” and added remarks on which breeds Mallards could be crossed with most successfully. [Excerpt from “John James Audubon, Tastes of America,” Gastronomica, Summer 2011, p.32, by this author.]
Whether wild or domesticated, whichever breeds or crossbreeds of ducks you like, here are some recipes for you to try.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits (Macmillan), was published in 1993 and her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion, 3rd edition (John Wiley & Sons), in 2003. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library, from 2000 to 2009. Beth can be reached at email@example.com.