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An eighteenth century dish of smothered duck

Elsewhere we have discussed other recipes from Jane Grigson that boil duck. They, and this, are, as she says, eighteenth century recipes, and good ones. Even though, unlike decent chicken, duck has a lot of fat, much of it lies between skin and meat rather than within it; these are sturdy birds that use their muscles to swim and fly as well as walk. Roasting them can dry them out, so it remains a mystery why nobody now wants to boil these birds, not to mention chickens, pheasants and turkeys. It is, on balance, the superior method. For two.

To boil the duck:

  • a duck
  • its giblets other than the liver (fry it for an amuse bouche)
  • beef stock to cover the duck
  • bouquet garni (see the Notes)
  • Duck_portriat_gill_1979002.jpgan unpeeled carrot, quartered
  • a rib of celery with its leaves, quartered
  • an onion, peeled and pierced by 2 cloves


To prepare its sauce:

  • 2 lb big onions, peeled and sliced into thin crescents
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon flour (preferably Wondra)
  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 6 oz heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon or more cayenne
  • a grating of nutmeg or flurry of mace
  • salt and pepper

Portrait of Nicholas Gill, Adrian Gill 1979

  1. Put the duck breast down in a pot just big enough to hold it and all the other dry ingredients from the first list and cover it with stock.
  2. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to the merest simmer and cover the pot.
  3. After about 45 minutes flip the duck on its back, replace the cover and continue to simmer the duck until tender, usually in a total of about 1½ hours. As Mrs. Grigson suggests, “[w]iggle the legs to see if they move loosely: the meat should be pulling away from the bone” or, to be more precise, the meat will have pulled back to expose the bone of the drumstick when the duck is done.
  4. Quarter the duck, season the sections and keep them warm.
  5. Make the sauce while the duck boils.
  6. Simmer the onions until tender in the milk and water.
  7. Drain them, chop them fine and return them to their pan over low heat. Sprinkle the flour over the onion for a few minutes to warm it, then slowly add the butter to the pot, ½ Tablespoon at a time. Once all the butter has melted and begins to bubble, stir the cream into the mix.
  8. Follow the cream with the lemon juice, cayenne and nutmeg or mace, then season the sauce with salt and pepper.
  9. Smother the duck in the sauce.


-This is another one of the recipes from Mrs. Grigson’s Food with the Famous that Parson Woodforde recorded in his diary. Woodforde’s wife Nancy smothered rabbits to serve his parishioners on Tithe Audit Day, and you can too; the recipe requires no alteration but replacement of the duck with a rabbit. In the grand eighteenth century style, the smothered rabbit went to table along with lots of other dishes so the diners could select their favorites. They included roast beef and marrow, boiled mutton with caper sauce, salt fish with parsnips and egg sauce and plum puddings. These and the rabbit are among the most iconic of eighteenth century preparations; each of them is wonderful.

-Perhaps more important to the success of the dinner, however, was the booze. Mrs. Grigson explains that “Parson Woodforde entertained the people who came to pay their dues, and softened the painfulness with plenty of drink. One year, twenty-two of them drank six bottles of rum, four bottles of Port and plenty of strong beer--no wonder two of the party left ‘rather full’ when it broke up at midnight.” Not for nothing was this annual fleecing also called the ‘Frolic.’

-The components of your bouquet are yours to choose but should include a couple of bay leaves, some sprigs of parsley and at least another green herb. The Editor loads her with fasces of thyme.

-The Editor has added the cayenne to the original sequence, and sometimes sneaks a slug of Worcestershire into the stock.

-Mrs. Grigson liked to surround her smothered duck with matchstick potatoes. The Editor likes mashed potatoes to soak up the smothering sauce.

-Peas or braised lettuce or both or a dish combining the two, would be the classic cooked green accompaniment to smothered duck. Alternatively offer up a salad of lightly dressed watercress; equally authentic.

-If you select rabbit instead, Mrs. Grigson entreats you to choose a wild one, warning that “tame rabbit is too insipid for boiling.”

-You will, as she notes, have plenty of superb stock, “handy for soups and stews” and, even better, gumbo.