La Tour d’argent poinct ne leurre*, or, Pressed Duck, Blood and Guts and All

La Tour d’Argent, exterior (Photo credit: David Queen)

What is sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander but is not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen. ~ Alice B. Toklas

The famed, if slightly faded, Parisian restaurant, La Tour d’Argent, embodies the French idea of culinary hegemony.

So do ducks.

As you stand outside the window, peering into the sanctum sanctorum of the restaurant, traffic clattering behind you on the Quai de la Tournelle, you might not realize that the signature dish served inside this actually began because of Spanish immigrants to the Vendée region in 1650, during the reign of Philip IV of Spain.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

They captured the wild ducks munching on the crisp marsh grasses there and domesticated them.

The Challandais ducks served at the Tour still come from that region.

Rouen ducks

It’s hard to picture the Tour – which began serving meals in 1582 to such luminaries as Henri III, Cardinal Richelieu, and Madame de Sevigné – as anything other than the gastronomical palace it is today, but in 1929, as Julian Street makes clear, today’s Tour, like cuisine, evolved from a somewhat less glorious state:

When I first knew the Tour D’Argent it was a plain place with a wooden floor covered with sawdust, but it was none the less a temple of gastronomy, for it was presided over by old Frédéric Delair who, with his high bald forehead, his steel-rimmed spectacles, and his whiskers, resembled Ibsen or Thackeray, and who, like Ibsen and Thackeray, was an artist, though in a different field.” (From Where Paris Dines, 1929)

Once you walk through those heavy wooden doors, and you settle down in the plush-bottomed chairs, the waiter hands you a large menu covered in black leather, about the size of a small briefcase. Trying to find a comfortable position against the ornate caned-back chairs, you’ll choose from the following dishes, featuring Challandais ducklings:

Caneton Marco Polo, sablé parmesan aux asperges  140 €

Caneton “Tour d’Argent”, pommes soufflés   140 €

Caneton à l’orange, carotte aux agrumes et pain d’épices  140 €

Caneton rôti de saison   70 €

Just so there’s no shock, when you order Caneton “Tour d’Argent,” you will be privy to a very exclusive ritual, a practice that may seem barbaric.

Your duck, you see, died by strangulation so as to preserve its blood for the sauce. No more than twenty-four hours later, the chef lightly roasts the dressed carcass, the liver set aside for the sauce, removes the legs and breast, and the duck arrives at the customer’s table. The canardiers wheel out a large silver “duck press” and go to work, pressing the duck carcass so that the blood trickles out into a sauté pan. The maitre d’ mashes the liver and mixes in the blood, along with Madeira, Cognac, and lemon juice. (See link to recipe below.) The process has roots in the custom of salmis (salmigondis), or game stew.

What emerges is a sauce the color of dark chocolate, with the unmistakable tang of blood that you know from biting your tongue or cheek too hard. Wild, salty, iron-like, primitive. You could almost be sitting on the banks of a river in the twilight, the heat of a small fire fading, instead of at table overlooking the Seine and the Ile de la Cité, gazing at the birthplace of Paris.

Photo credit: FXCuisine

Terrail kept a diary and recorded the number assigned to each duck and the name of the person who ordered it. Upon leaving, customers received a certificate the size of a postcard with this number. The Prince of Wales ate duck number 328 in 1890. Forty years later, Franklin D Roosevelt enjoyed duck number 112,152.

What strikes me about this treatment of duck?

It resembles in some ways the idea of pressed duck found in Chinese cuisine, though the blood isn’t used in the same way. And that, as you can guess, requires some looking into.

But blood figured in many ancient recipes in Europe, too. Coq au Vin comes to mind, as does blood sausage. In fact, many dishes in regional French cuisine utilized blood as a thickening agent, due to the coagulation of proteins in the presence of heat. Or just air. Sanguette, where the blood of a chicken cooks in a nest of lard strips and herbs and then is fried, another way in which the French used animal blood in cooking.

Photo credit: Terry Dwyer

Recipe for Canard au Sang, from Vincent Price’s book, A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965).

For visual tour of a duck-pressing experience see FXCuisine.

*”The Silver Tower does not deceive.” Motto inscribed on the covers of the menus cases.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen