We took a drive last November south from Toulouse. As the suburbs faded into le Parc de Pyrénées Ariégeoises, we passed the town of Foix, stopping to see its twelfth-century castle. Soon we were in Niaux, a tiny village with a huge cave. The town is at the beginning of the Pyrenees, and only 15 kilometers from the border with Andorra.
From the valley to the cave was a very small, steep, and winding dirt road – only a few feet wider than the car and without any guardrail.
The sun set, and the guide handed each of us a heavy flashlight – the kind you hold from a handle – a block of lead painted with bright red lacquer. Then we followed her into the darkness through some narrow, slippery passages and echoing atriums. There were stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, the floor was sometimes a puddle, and often the cave extended off to the side into complete darkness. Tourists like us have been exploring this cave for hundreds of years. And then, at the end of the cave, we all turned off our flashlights, and our guide turned just one on, illuminating the prehistoric cave drawings above us.
Confit de canard is a traditional dish of all of France, but most specifically of Gascogne, just to the west of Niaux. Confit just refers to the fact that the duck is preserved in fat. Traditionally, confit de canard is made by simmering duck legs in extra duck fat for almost an entire day. Then, the duck and the filtered fat go into a jar or can, which can keep for years. In France you can just buy cans of confit de canard. But since – quite strangely – it’s difficult to find these things outside of France, here is a recipe for a ‘quick’ confit. This takes one or two days in the fridge, and a few hours in the oven, but there’s not much work involved. Just creating a rub a day or so in advance, and watching the stove for twenty minutes. Confit de canard is usually served atop a pile of French fries and figs are grown in Gascogne, so I also roasted some sweet potatoes and figs with the duck.
Quick Confit de Canard
- 1/4 cup (50 g) salt
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1 tbsp thyme leaves
- white pepper
- pinch ginger
- pinch nutmeg
- dash cloves
- 2 shallots, chopped
- 1 bay leaf, crumbled
- 2 duck legs
- With a hand blender or mortar, combine the salt, garlic, thyme, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, shallots, and bay leaf into a paste.
- Rub the paste all over the duck legs and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
- After refrigeration, let the duck legs come to room temperature for 2 hours.
- Choose an oven safe pan that will fit the duck legs tightly in one layer. Heat it on the stove over medium heat while the oven preheats to 325°F (165°F). When it’s hot, put the duck legs in skin-side down. Let the meat render out about 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) of fat. This will take about 20 minutes.
- Take the pan of the heat, and wait for the sizzling to stop. Then turn the legs over, cover the pan with foil, and place in the oven.
- After two hours, take the foil off the pan.
- After a total of three hours, take the duck out of the oven.
You can serve this with roast potatoes and figs made in the same oven. Cut two sweet potatoes into thin slices, toss with salt and a few tablespoons duck fat from the roasting legs, and place in the oven one hour before the duck is ready. Twenty minutes before the duck is done, halve the figs, place them in the pan with the duck, spoon over some of the fat, and return the pan to the oven. Then both the potatoes and figs are done with the duck.
If there is extra duck fat in the pan, you should save it. For a real confit de canard in the future, for delicious popcorn, or for roasted vegetables.