The History Of The Recipe For Use With A Duck Press

When it comes to tableside equipment in restaurant dining rooms, there is nothing so revered as the duck press. Seldom seen by the average diner in “everyday” restaurants and used even less, the machine is used in very specific preparations in a number of exquisite restaurants in Europe. It is found particularly in France where the device and associated recipes are rumored to have been developed, but can also be seen in operation in fewer similar restaurants in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere internationally.

The basic preparation a duck press is used for was described by Escoffier in his renowned cookbook on French cuisine, A Guide To Modern Cookery, in the 1907 English edition:

1761 – Caneton Rouennais a la Pressé
Roast the duckling for twenty minutes, and send it instantly to the table, where it should be treated as follows :- Remove the legs, which are not served; carve the fillets into fine slices, laid one against the other on a lukewarm dish … Chop up the carcass and press it, sprinkling it the while with a glassful of good red wine. Collect the gravy; add thereto a few drops of brandy, and with this liquor sprinkle the slices of breast, which should have been well seasoned … Put the dish on a chafer, and thoroughly heat without allowing it to boil … Serve instantly.

A duck press can be a substantial piece of equipment. Weighing upwards of twenty lbs, they’re generally cast of brass, steel or bronze, sometimes either nickel- or silver-plated, and are highly polished. Their retail cost generally ranges from $1,250.00 to $3,500.00 USD in 2019. The most expensive duck press available is handmade and silver-plated by the silversmiths at Ercuis in Paris, France. Founded in 1867, the firm offers their Duck Press Grand Hôtel for €16,000.00, or about $14,000.00 in 2019.

When examined realistically however, the duck press has parallels in apothecary presses which have centuries of history, and in domestic devices intended for farm and fermentation uses dating to the mid 1850s. Examining these earlier devices as well as the lengthy history of recipes involving the crushing of duck carcasses can offer a different perspective on the supposed necessity for the duck press itself.

This piece by Izola Forrester, also published in 1907, included supposedly definitive statements regarding Delair’s invention of both the dish and the device. It also included descriptions of some of the fanfare involved in the presentation of the dish during Delair’s tenure there:

In Paris, one of the oldest and most picturesque of the master restaurateurs is certainly Frédéric Delair, now nearly seventy years of age. At his remarkable little restaurant. La Tour d’Argent at 15 Quai de la Tournelle, he still serves his renowned pressed duck and the four or five other dishes which have made his name familiar all over the world … It was Delair, alone and unaided, who first invented, created and served pressed duck. No other dish of recent years has achieved such remarkable popularity. In the smartest restaurants of New York. St. Petersburg, Vienna, San Francisco and London, there is always a large silver press ready to receive a wild duck and crush it a la Delair … One of these ducks, so cooked and served, costs about eleven dollars, and, as he has pressed twenty-six thousand of them since he began, it can be seen that his genius has been well rewarded … If one orders a duck at Delair’s, it is first brought in uncooked and displayed to the hungry patron. Delair, or one of his head waiters, then cuts the skin from the back of the duck, as this is supposed to possess a very unsavory flavor. It is then taken out and half cooked and brought in and again exhibited … The legs are now cut off and sent out to be fried. The breast is carefully cut off in slices and cooked on a chafing dish in a sauce of Delair’s invention. The rest of the duck is then put into a silver press and mashed. The juice resulting from this process is then poured into another sauce and heated. Finally the slices of breast are served on hot plates and the combination sauce poured over them. Americans usually order a little jelly and some celery salad with the duck. but Delair thinks that this is rank heresy and prefers that his creation shall be served and eaten alone in its glory. The dish is certainly a good one. It is a little. rich and a little expensive, but, as Mark Twain said, “When in Paris do as the Yankees do.” [The Scrap Book, First Section, Volume IV, July – December. New York, New York; The Frank A. Munsey Company]

It’s rather outlandish for Forrester to have made the claim that Delair invented pressed duck “alone and unaided”. Cooking of any type, style, or ethnicity tends to build on previous developments and recipes. And with Delair being known for his showmanship it’s possible, albeit likely, that it was he who promoted himself as the originator of Canard à la Rouennaise. In examining the literature, conflicting with the stories of Delair creating the dish himself are other publications from his time, as well as later works which addressed the origin of Canard à la Rouennaise. Writings from Delair’s time questioned the claims of his originating the dish, such as this paragraph from the 1913 Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living by Henry T. Finck:

“Most of the Paris restaurants, now that Frédéric is no more, have their silver turnscrew, and they do not feel guilty of plagiarism, for Frédéric did not really originate this trick but adapted it from the practice of French peasants who tried to get as much juice as possible out of their tough and skinny ducks by smashing the carcasses with stones.”

Works on the subject of French classic cooking as it is known today can be found dating back to the seventeenth century. These earlier works are replete with preparations for roast duck. Duck has always been plentiful in France, and recipes for even rare roast duck were included in these earlier cookbooks.

The preparation of wild duck in a manner quite close to that of Canard à la Rouennaise shows up in a book by Hannah Glasse, who published her book The Art Of Cookery Made Plain And Easy in London in 1774. In this work Glasse detailed more than a dozen recipes for both tame (aka “farm-raised”) and wild duck. While indicating cooking times of twenty to forty-five minutes for most birds, she describes various cooking temperatures for wild duck, writing “Ten minutes at a very quick fire will do them; but if you love them well done, a quarter of an hour.” As this seems a short period of time by today’s standards when rare duck takes approximately seventeen minutes, the use of “a very quick fire” may well mean a high heat source that’s much hotter than what might be considered normal in today’s recipes. A “quick fire” may have resulted in quite a rapid sear of the duck.

A recipe for wild duck included in Glasse’s work provides one possible foundation for Canard à la Rouennaise:

To dress a wild duck the best way.
FIRST half roast it, then lay it in a dish, carve it, but leave the joints hanging together, throw a little pepper and salt, and squeeze the juice of a lemon over it, turn it on the breast, and press it hard with a plate, and add to its own gravy, two or three spoonfuls of good gravy, cover it close with another dish, and set it over a stove ten minutes, then send it to table hot in the dish it was done in, and garnish with lemon. You may add a little red wine, and a shalot cut small, if you like it, but it is apt to make the duck eat hard unless you first heat the wine and pour it in just as it is done.
[Note: The long “s” having the appearance of an “f” as found in this text has been replaced with the modern round “s” without changing the meaning of the text.]

When the above steps are compared with the following steps from the basic recipe for Canard à la Rouennaise from Escoffier, the parallels between the methods of the two dishes is striking.

Steps from Escoffier:

  1. Roast a duck to a rare temperature
  2. Remove the meat from the carcass and keep it warm
  3. Crush the carcass
  4. Strain the liquid from the carcass (this is built into the duck press)
  5. Prepare the sauce using the liquid from the carcass
  6. Thicken the sauce
  7. Serve the rare duck meat with the sauce

A major difference is the mechanism used to crush the carcass. In Glasse’s work the seemingly-simple “plate” as described when crushing the carcass may well have been a dinner plate for eating from, as this is how the term is used throughout the rest of the book, i.e., “These make a pretty plate at supper”. This is also differentiated from a metal plate of any kind, which is specified elsewhere, i.e., “… cover them with a pewter-plate, …” and “… lay them on a tin-plate to be baked …”, or a plate with a given purpose, i.e., “… turn it out on a pie-plate; …” or “… as you would have it for your dish or butter-plate.”

As Glasse does not claim development of this preparation, the recipe most likely had history prior to 1774. There is also no apparent connection between this and the preparation by La Varenne, but as the methods are similar the specific procedure itself may have been quite common at the time.