Ducks and Brillat-Savarin

A light and tasty post to leave you for Easter..and a happy Easter to all!

Chez nous, it’s ducks, ducks, ducks at the moment, as the 14-strong regiment of Muscovy ducklings we’ve reared have become big enough to well, become dinner. We’ve had duck ‘a toutes les sauces’, you might say: roast duck, duck pie, Balinese duck, Gascon duck, Cajun duck, duck Roghan Josh, duck with lentils (also home-grown, the beautiful little grey-green Puy lentils–won’t touch any other lentil now!)duck soup..We’ve made duck terrine, duck ham (airdried, rather like prosciutto) and will also make duck confit. We are ducked out, it has to be said. The kids groan when they open the fridge and see yet another duck sitting there! They’re thrilled we’re definitely bypassing the duck for Easter, and having the traditional Paschal lamb..
It’s been a really good year for home produce here, because we’ve had a very good balance of rain and sun. Not only ducks, but masses of fruit (and masses of fruit fly and codlin moth too, sadly): nashis, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries, pears..and lots of vegies. We haven’t patronised our local fruit and vegie shop for months.
When you grow a lot of food, you are also interested in lots and lots of diffeent ways of cooking it, and preserving it. Recently, as well as all the usual ranks of cookbooks(including the lovely big Stephanie Alexander Cook’s Companion, given to us by our equally gourmand daughter for Christmas), I’ve been dipping into the lovely French classic, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 book, ‘Physiologie du Gout’ (available in English as ‘The Philosopher in the Kitchen.’

Brillat-Savarin’s writing has the lovely clarity, lucidity and intimacy of the French writers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His book, packed with anecdotes, recipes, aphorisms, ‘scientific’ investigation and ideas, takes food seriously, but with a great lightness of touch, and a brisk humour that I find very appealing. He frequently wanders off into delightfully tangential discussions, tells you about friends of his, recounts amazing stories about his adventures in America (he had to flee France during the Jacobin Terror, despite the fact that as a deputy in the Parliament and then mayor of Belley, he was very much liked and his constituents tried to protect him), and generally makes himself into a very pleasant friend to the reader. He has a very great understanding of the civilising influence of gastronomy; (he often refers to his muse, Gasterea, the Muse of gourmandism, which he is careful to distinguish from gluttony).His great interest was in provincial cooking, not in the tricked-up ‘haute cuisine’ of his time, and he is not at all a food snob, but one who regards food, and wine(about which he also writes) as a beautiful part of life.
Some of his aphorisms, incidentally, have become very famous indeed, such as ‘Tell me what you eat; I will tell you what you are.’ Others are less well known, but just as charming: for instance, ‘The table is the only place where the first hour is never dull,’; or ‘The fate of nations depends on the way they eat’; or, one of my great favourites, ‘The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.’
He is very French–one of his marginal notes, called ‘note from a patriotic gourmand’, says, ‘I note with pride that coquetry and gourmandism, those two great modifications which extreme sociability have made to our most pressing needs, are both of French origin.’ But he is also very open to other nations, and other ways of life, and is particularly good, and interesting, on America, like another French globetrotter, the marvellous Alexis de Toquueville, whom we’ve been reading recently, too, on rather different matters.
If you’re interested in food, and you haven’t met Brillat-Savarin yet, I urge you to do so. It’s a lot of fun, and very inspiring.

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2024 years ago

On ducks – I think the Thais do wonderful things with duck. I used to hate the idea of eating duck because of that song we learned in schoolabout ‘come and be killed’. Much better than chicken, as I subsequently discovered.

On Brillat-Savarin – the book sounds great but does the French idiom survive translation? I love Moliere’s comedies which are from a (slightly) earlier period, but the modern translations leave me cold. I rely on an old Everyman edition which uses a contemporaneous translation.

More generally, I think cookery books are a wicked snare and a delusion. We have millions of them but still wind up eating grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches (with oregano). Very nice too.

2024 years ago

Rob, yes, I think the book has been translated quite well(the edition we have is a Penguin paperback, and the translator is Anne Drayton.)I agree cookery books can be a distraction but we do actually use them quite a lot–one of my own favourites is a well-thumbed copy of the Larousse encyclopedia. You can find just about everything in there, combined with Staphanie Alexander’s book..