This is not difficult, but is a job best done out of doors or the feathers go everywhere and are very hard to clear up. Of course it is much easier when the birds are warm, but not many shooting men will pause in the middle of a good flight to save a few minutes of the cook’s time. The youngest member of the family who does not yet shoot can sometimes be persuaded to pluck on the marsh; and following one particularly successful outing the pile of feathers misled a later guest into thinking that there must be some very large hawk about!
A sharp tug with the thumb and index finger against the direction of the feathers removes them easily from the ducks. The terminal part of the wing can be cut off (the amount of meat is not worth the effort), but if you feel that you must pluck a goose’s wings completely, try using pliers.
Once most of the feathers are off, the down can be removed by rubbing the skin firmly with the ball of your thumb.
As I have mentioned we pluck in the garden, straight into the incinerator, and then set light to the feathers and the household waste paper to singe the birds. By taking the head in one hand and one leg in the other, the birds can be quickly singed in the flames and you keep warm too!
This is a quick and practical method of singeing, but not to be undertaken on a windy day.
Drawing and Finishing
Remove the head and neck and cut off the legs, then a cut is made through the skin from the lower end of the breast bone to the vent, removing the latter. The intestines, lungs and windpipe are discarded; the giblets – the heart, liver and neck – should be kept for stock.
Finally the birds are wiped outside and in with a cloth that has been wrung out in very hot water and a little vinegar – this will improve the appearance of the carcass. Alternatively, wash the duck under the tap if you are not going to freeze it.
Some people maintain that it is far easier to skin than pluck a bird, particularly a goose. This can be done through a cut on the front or back. Sometimes only the muscles of the breast and legs are used rather than the whole carcass. When skinned, I wrap the whole body in a “caul” – this is a fatty membrane which any butcher will produce if you give him warning. The skin it makes when cooked is crisp and delicious.
Ducks which are to be deep frozen are hung, plucked and dressed as previously discussed and then placed in individual polythene bags, sealed and labelled. Labelling is very important; different species are difficult to identify in the frozen state and the date is of great value, because twelve months in the freezer is just about the maximum before the birds become too dried out. All ducks freeze well. As with all deep freezing this should be done as rapidly as possible. It is a useful method of storing food when there is a surfeit, but on the whole, I think it is agreed that the ducks are best eaten during the winter. After a few months without duck on the menu the September corn fed mallard is really appreciated. However, cold duck is summer served with French salad is delicious.
This should be done at room temperature and is therefore a slow process. Twelve hours is about the minimum time which should be allowed, and twenty-four hours for a large goose. De-frosting must be complete before cooking.
If for some reason the birds are not hung before freezing, an additional time should be allowed before cooking, but it must not be forgotten that birds which have been frozen deteriorate more quickly than fresh ones.
Now that the bird is ready for the oven, much depends on the variety, the age of the bird and the time of year it was shot, and it is important to have this information before deciding the best way of cooking it.
Every true wildfowler is able to identify the duck he has shot. In general, young duck have pointed tail feathers and narrow pointed feathers on the shoulder feathers, not broad rounded ones as in old birds. In wigeon drakes their shoulder feathers are also an infallible guide, being white in adult drakes, gray in young drakes.
Undoubtedly the easiest to cook is the young corn fed mallard shot in the autumn – other surface-feeding duck such as pintail, teal and wigeon are good to eat, except perhaps some shoveler whose diet contains a high animal content.
Of the diving duck – pochard is the only vegetarian and as such is excellent to eat. Tufted duck take more animal food, and therefore require more specialized treatment, but nothing will disguise the golden-eye and sea duck – they are revolting to eat but lovely to look at and should always be spared.
Amongst the geese, the canada and gray geese feed on grass or corn or potatoes and are easy to present, although the birds are difficult to age and can be dishearteningly tough despite long, careful treatment.
Wildfowl are traditionally served underdone and the flesh on the breast should be slightly pink when served.
On the spit
Many modern cookers have a rotating spit and this is the best way of all. Salt and paint with oil, and start roasting at maximum temperature, reducing to medium heat after ten minutes. Teal are the “jewels of the spit”. (Alexandra Innes Shaw in Wildfowl 1905.) Allow half an hour for a teal and one hour for mallard.
Slices of bacon trussed round a dry duck will improve the flavour. Remove in time to crisp the skin.
In a hot oven (425 – 450oF Gas Mark 7)
Place the birds breast down in a shallow roasting tin just large enough to hold them. Baste with butter, cooking oil or dripping and turn the birds onto their backs ten minutes before the end of the cooking time. If you are unable to baste the bird wrap in foil or put in a self basting roaster. The skin can be crisped by sprinkling with salt after the final basting or it can be frothed by sprinkling with flour; I find this is best done by putting a little flour in the tea strainer and shaking it over the birds.
A different flavour and delicious crispness can be obtained by brushing the skin of the breast with honey, or with melted brown sugar and sprinkling with fine oatmeal.
The addition of an onion and a carrot is in the roasting tin helps with the flavour and the gravy. The dripping from duck is strong in flavour and best not used for other meats. Allow three quarters of an hour to one hour for mallard, two and a half hours for greylag and twenty-five minutes for teal.
In a moderate oven
This is the best way of cooking birds which one suspects will be tough, but it does take longer.
Lard the breast well and wrap the bird in aluminium foil. Start the oven at 450 oF – Gas Mark 7, for ten minutes then turn it down to 300 oF or 350 oF – Gas Mark 2 – 3. The geese can take four or five hours in the oven, at the end of which time the juices in the tin can be poured off and the breast skin crisped in a hot oven to finish.
In an automatic oven
For the housewife who likes to go shooting too – but who will be expected to provide food immediately on return – this is a boon. The most difficult part of the operation is the understanding and correct application of the instructions on the cooker. Tempers ten to be frayed after a long day on the marsh and raw duck on return tends to make matters worse!
It is difficult to gauge the time of return and therefore best to wrap the ducks in aluminium foil and use the low temperature oven method – they may be crisped up while the frozen peas are boiling! Baked potatoes combine well after a day in the open air.
Young teal can be split in half, seasoned and grilled until tender. This usually takes about half an hour with the grill at medium heat. They are delicious in this way.
Two recipes from Shooting by Moor, Field and Shore (The Londsale Library, Volume III).
Braised Wild Duck
Braise with a cupful of sliced onions and carrots in a bacon-lined pan, herb seasoned. Pour off fat at half-time and add a simple brown sauce, the juice of half a lemon and a glass of wine.
Braise as above, strain off fat and finish with a clear Madeira wine sauce containing browning shallots and fried mushrooms.
This is a good way of cooking wildfowl as a variation from oven roasting – placed in a casserole or cocotte with butter, shallots and a little garlic. Cooked in its own steam it becomes very tender.
Mrs Hans Michaelis, wife of the Director of the Royal Dutch Hunting Association, who must have had plenty of practice, also cooks her duck in a casserole on the top of the stove, with butter, and recommends you flambé it in brandy if the flavour of the marsh is too strong.
Mrs A.P. Ivinov, from Russia, told me that she would cook a wild duck in a casserole, also on the top of the stove, with apples, potatoes and sarrasin – I have since learned that sarrasin is buckwheat. At the same time I had a Belgian recipe from La Comptesse d’Elzius, who recommended cooking wild duck in a covered casserole in the oven and making a sauce with the juices combining orange juice, demerara sugar and Grand Marnier.
For ducks and geese which are expected to be tough the meat may be allowed to marinade for a few days in a half bottle of dry white wine with a sliced onion.
Mr Geoffrey Graves, a member of the Kent Wildfowler’s Association, who cooks his birds himself, recommends marinating late season wigeon. He skins his birds and uses breast meat only, then frying and layering the meat, onions, carrots and potatoes into the casserole and moistening with one and a half pints of stock. This ‘hotpot’ is very good in the winter and can be varied by the addition of chopped bacon, celery, mushrooms or a tin of tomatoes.
Cold Duck or Goose
Roast or pot roast duck is popular with salad in the summer and goes much further than when served hot. This is an excellent way to use birds still left in the freezer. It is most useful in the picnic hamper.