The Florentine origins of a French classic
For those who don't take an interest in hunting, it is easy to forget that the transition from autumn to winter also marks the hunting season and the delicious promise of la caccia. Although not always readily available in supermarkets, most good Florentine butchers stock a variety of fresh local game from October to December.
There are several ways to prepare wild game, but the dish that usually comes to mind before many others is perhaps the world-famous French classic canard à l'orange (duck with orange). But just how traditionally French is this dish? It most likely has origins in Florence. Originally known as papero alla melarancia, it was invented in the Middle Ages, when it became popular in noble kitchens to use citrus fruits as a way to preserve meat. It was in this era that the powerful Medici family subsequently ordered the construction of limonaie (orangeries) in many of their villas, where they mainly cultivated lemons and oranges in large terracotta pots. Even today, these limonaie are important features of most Medici villas.
Papero alla melarancia was exported to France in 1529, when the 14-year-old Caterina de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, ruler of Florence, married the future king of France, Henry II. Forty chefs from Siena and Florence accompanied her to Paris, bringing some of their best recipes, many of which were later claimed by the French. Among these are crespelle (crepes; see TF 146), balsamella (béchamel sauce), carabaccia (onion soup; see TF 141) and, of course, papero alla melarancia, soon renamedcanard à l'orange.
Along with her cooks and their recipes, Caterina de' Medici is also reported to have imported to France the fork (see TF 161), porcelain dishes, Venetian glassware, the Italian banking system, theatrical comedy and ballet, as well as the expectation that ladies would be present at dinner (previously they had been excluded, except for special occasions).
While Italians fiercely defend the theory that canard à l'orange originated in Florence, other nations, including France, have also claimed to be the source. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley says that French recipes for duck with orange sauce existed as far back as the fourteenth century. However, the majority of food historians credit Caterina de' Medici, a veritable culinary trendsetter who brought more to France than any other noble, for this dish.
Whether fact or fiction, the possibility of the Florentine origin of duck à l'orange will add a touch of historical spice to this perfect winter warmer. Succulent, rich duck meat combined with the warming, aromatic spice of orange truly makes a delicious alternative to the everyday roast. With high levels of protein, B vitamins and minerals such as zinc, potassium, magnesium and iron, duck meat is very nutritious.
Some cooks avoid duck à l'orange, deterred by its reputation as a complex dish. Here, however, I offer a no-fuss but equally delicious version, arrosto di anatra all'arancia, in tribute to its simple Florentine origins.
Arrosto di anatra all'arancia
(serves 4 as a piatto unico or 6 as a secondo)
1 duck (1.5-2 kilos)
zest of 1 orange
1 stalk celery
200 ml chicken stock
juice of 2 oranges
1-2 tsp brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
If you have not bought the duck already cleaned, clean it well, cutting off any excess fat and removing the giblets. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Cut one of the oranges and the onion into quarters and stuff them inside the cavity. Dice the carrot and celery and place in the bottom of a roasting pan. Cut the other orange into slices and add to the bed of carrot and celery. Place the duck on top so that it covers all of the vegetables and orange slices. Prick the duck all over with a skewer and season generously with salt and pepper.
Place it in the preheated oven. After 20 minutes, reduce the temperature to 180 degrees Celsius and continue to roast the duck for another hour and 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat with its juices. Remove from the oven, cover and leave to rest on a large board while you make the sauce.
Strain excess fat from the roasting pan and remove the orange slices, carrots and celery with a slotted spoon. Adding a splash of chicken stock, place the roasting pan over medium heat, scraping off any residue from the sides and base of the pan. Add the remaining stock, the zest of 1 orange and the juice of both of the remaining 2 oranges, and 1-2 teaspoons of brown sugar (according to taste). Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced a little. Add the brandy, taste and season as required.
To serve, decorate the duck with singed orange slices, and carve into quarters at the table, adding the orange sauce. Serve along with roasted potatoes and seasonal vegetables.