Thank you, duck activists!

All those protests over foie gras may inadvertently improve Canadian cuisine

Thank you, duct activists!

Ryman Cabannes/SoFood/Corbis

News that the organizers of Ottawa’s Winterlude festival dinner on Feb. 4 were running scared from a handful of crazed ducks’ rights activists, and had asked the exuberantly indulgent Montreal chef Martin Picard to cook for their headline event without using any foie gras (he bowed out, instead), got me thinking about duck.

Specifically, about the very dark days ahead for all those Californian moulard ducks who have grown luxuriously accustomed to a little something extra for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their gravy train ends July 1, 2012, when the state legislature will enact a law that puts all Californian moulards on a sustenance diet and—in true Hollywood fashion—removes the welcome mat for all foreign-bred fatties, too.

You might say that what will happen next to the formerly trendsetting cuisine of California is anyone’s guess. But all you have to do to get a clear picture of the future is look to Australia, where foie gras production is prohibited, and its legal importation is strictly limited to cooked, prepared product.

For a taste of the Californian future, consider a dish I recently enjoyed at chef Justin North’s excellent Etch Restaurant, in Sydney, Australia. He called it a “Tasting of Aylesbury duck.” At one corner of the plate was some breast, lightly smoked over tea leaves, then pan-roasted until crisp-skinned and pink, sliced thin, and fanned out over a bed of daikon. Then there was a little confit, shredded and packed into a crisp pastry roll perched on a pool of rich aioli. Alongside, a square of unconventional rillettes, crisp-edged and surprisingly lean, but supple and flavoursome all the same. The final instalment was duck-egg custard, smooth, rich and infused to an intoxicating degree with Tasmanian truffle.

The dish was exquisite and imaginative. As I savoured it, that latter quality had me thinking about Canadian chefs, and how the easy and unthreatened availability of top-quality Quebec foie gras has possibly lulled too many of them into lazy complacency. For example, shortly before my trip Down Under, I found myself seated across a pub table from the executive chef at a top Toronto restaurant, who, discussing his upcoming new menu, suddenly blurted, “Man, am I ever sick of making ‘duck three ways.’ ”

Let me explain. “Duck three ways” has been a mainstay on posh North American menus for well over a decade now. No matter where you find it written, there will be no suspense as to what the three ways might be. One is roast duck breast, often magret (hopefully, cooked no more than medium-rare), another will be duck confit (hopefully, with crispy skin), and the third—the pièce de resistance—a small, seared escalope of foie gras.

One bird, three utterly different textures, and three distinct and magnificent flavours. It all adds up to such an obvious, perfect dish that no one remembers or cares who assembled it first. All that matters to chefs is that as long as you can stir up an appropriate (sweet and acidic) sauce for the trio—along with a competent starch and vegetable—you can make the dish your own. For the high-end restaurant, “duck three ways” is a gift, a perennial crowd pleaser that is easy to execute and commands top dollar to boot.

The only downside is that success dissuades new culinary thinking. Which is why I believe that California’s imminent culinary sacrifice will be our gain. While Australia is too distant to be a major influence here, California has long set local trends in motion. And when, in the absence of foie gras, necessity drives the invention of new duck dishes there, they will surely soon thereafter land here.

Meanwhile, we will continue to enjoy our foie gras—because ever since they had an unsuccessful go at raw milk cheese, Ottawa bureaucrats, however provincial, have at least been trained to never again alienate Quebec voters by trying to kill off one of their treasured industries. So when I look to our culinary future, I see new duck combinations like chef North’s four-way tasting—and then I add our fine foie gras, and arrive at a new norm: duck four, five, or even six ways! And to think that without people like those anti-Picard demonstrators in Ottawa, it might not ever have happened.

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