Winter rolls through Gascony like a fast train: whistling in through December, screeching to a quick stop for January, and then on the rails again by end of February. That’s how I like my winters- short and sweet as a TGV (Train Grande Vitesse).
Winter forces Camont to calm down and take a nap as gardens get raggedy and the chickens get eaten (yes, foxes got them all). All is quiet on the Gascon ranch; the fair weather ‘Franco-Carpetbaggers’ have yet to arrive and even Cinderella, my sister, jumped ship this winter so I could work and write in peace. I am writing, plotting and producing next year on paper, but I am also a master at distracting myself. As much as I crave a bit of real down time- no schedule, no planning, just everyday what comes next- the Gascon winter clock is ticking and that tic-toc, tic-toc is starting to drive me mad. Soon I will rush to prune the orchard, and plot the potager, and finish the plans for the barn being built as we speak.
But the real ticking time bomb at Camont has feathers. Fall migration has passed. Spring is just down the flyway. I am, of course, thinking about confit de canard. Yes, I know Fall is the traditional preserving time, but we are just going into the post-holiday, serious confit season. The foie gras madness at Christmas and New Years (along with truffle hijacking) is past, prices come down and even a premier grade AAA foie gras entier can be had for a reasonable 26 euros a kilo. I even saw frozen foie gras for the first time in the supermarket today. So this is the season to be thinking about how to put up, preserve and store duck- beak to tail.
Meat is as seasonal as fruit in rural France. Lambs are Spring only- the rest of the year it’s hogget/yearling or mutton. Family farm hogs are slaughtered for charcuterie in the Winter months, like now. Beef and veal even have their own rhythms as we move from daubes and blanquettes to grilling. To each purpose, a season.
I begin to look at my pantry shelves, nicely filled with last summer’s fruits, jeweled jars of confitures and tins of salty Spanish fish. However the poultry section, with the exception of two whole confited mallards in tins that I scored in the Basque country, is dangerously low on duck: confit de canard, pate de foie gras, cou farci, gesiers, etc.. How many jars will I need to get through the year of festive summer nights? Welcomed visitors? And school lunches for my students? I start counting weeks figuring that once a week at least, from May through October, I use confit from my pantry. Confit de canard makes a fast supper of green lentils and crispy duck legs, a mountain of duck fat fried potatoes to accompany a grilled magret, a Salade Gasconne with slices of confit gesiers, stuffed neck sausage, and a few generous slabs of foie gras. There would be no Fall soups like garbure without confit.
Oh, and cassoulet. Don’t forget each Winter there is cassoulet and that’s a great way to use the wings, or bone a couple legs to add to the saucisse de Toulouse. (I have a feeling I’ll be making it a lot of cassoulet this year). When I’ve cooked and eaten enough French food, there are also rice paper wraps and dumplings to make and tamales with prunes… all with duck confit. Shepherd’s pie or tarte de gaveuse is a perfect picnic meat pie. Confit de Canard is that blast of uber-umami flavor, silky satisfying texture and chic convenience food all wrapped into one.
How many jars? How many ducks? Two jars a week, spread over 6 months (25 weeks) = 50 jars put in the pantry. I count on getting 5-6 jars of confit, legs, breasts, wings, gizzards and necks per fat duck. So butchering and making charcuterie with 10 ducks, weighing around 5-7 kilos, means I’ll also have 50+ jars of rillettes, some pate and a few jars of smooth pain d’epice foie flan– last year’s favorite. Over the next two months as charcuterie students come and go, we’ll be making confit and more confit. Each student tackles a fat duck and passes it on to the next group. Now, that’s passing the charcuterie love forward.
You can also confit old hens, roosters and other birds. But it is at this season, when the distance memory of early spring migration thrills the Muscovy and Mulard duck farms of Gascony that I start thinking about wrapping up winter. By next month, I know I’ll have access to the best fat ducks from one of the several local Marche au Gras. As an added feature on our new cassoulet iPad app- (Available soon at an iTunes store near you), I am including an introduction to making confit de canard. After all, it is the season… and I am thinking about confit de canard.
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