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Whatever happened to duck à l'orange?

"duck a l'orange — a really good one, with crisp skin, succulent meat, and a velvety citrus sauce that tastes like concentrated sunshine—is a thing too delicious to succumb to the vagaries of fashion." Beth Kracklauer - Saveur

I have a very nasty feeling that I have done this before, so apologies to my long-time faithfuls. I have this feeling because I recognise some of the online articles I found and cannot think why I would otherwise have found Germaine Greer talking about duck à l'orange in a rather grumpy way after having been inveigled into a cook off of this particular dish with Gordon Ramsay. But I did like this particular whinge which rang true to me:

"In the 70s, we put sauces on our food; nowadays, food is put on sauces, so that you have no choice but to eat your duck with orange sauce whether you like it or not." Germaine Greer

As she said she, like I, served up the various elements of the meal separately on separate dishes so that her guests could help themselves, whereas today one has to plate it all to make it look delicious, mostly with the sauce underneath - as in the France-soir version shown here.

The 70s, or rather the 60s to the 80s were the heyday of duck à l'orange I think. It was bistro food - the bistro was the trendy kind of diner of the day. Almost every bistro had it on the menu and I remember David saying that he met a guy in a hotel restaurant once - they were both dining alone, whilst being there on business - who said that he always had duck à l'orange as he was in search of the perfect one. I don't remember whether he had found it as yet. Such dedication reminds me of my two boys always having Caesar Salad for a while, for the same reason.

Anyway, here I am again, looking at the ways that duck à l'orange has changed over time. Why? Because as I sipped my freshly squeezed orange juice this morning (thank you David), for some reason I thought of it. I don't think I have actually ever made it myself, unless the infamous duck that David and his flatmate cooked for ten people - yes one duck - had an orange sauce. Not that I was cooking anyway. Fortunately the flatmate's girlfriend and I had cooked a heck of a lot of potatoes. For a duck will really only feed two people, three if you're lucky. They look huge but there's not much meat on them. Ten is a real stretch.

So origins. Well apparently the Italians like to claim it - that Catherine de Medici thing - but actually opinion seems to be that it probably originated in the Middle-East somewhere, probably Persia in ancient times. I tried to find an 'authentic' Middle-Eastern or North African version but just couldn't come up with the goods. There were a few with an orange flavoured accompanying couscous or salad, but not an actual orange duck. I'm pretty sure that there are Middle-Eastern cooks doing this kind of thing though.

The French, claimed it as their own in the 16th century, although there seems to be a bit of a dispute over name. Elizabeth David, amongst others would say it is Caneton sauce bigarade. 'Bigarade' means Seville orange, and this is what you are actually supposed to use because ordinary oranges are too sweet. You need something sharp to cut through the, rich, fatty nature of the duck. But alas Seville oranges have a very limited season if you can find them at all, so cooks have improvised by adding something more acidic to the mix - from lemons and vinegar, to tamarind. This version seems to be a sauce that you prepare separately from the duck and pour over the duck at the end - à la Germaine Greer. Elizabeth David adds that:

"this is not a sauce to be served if you are drinking a fine wine with your duck; it would overwhelm."

Because it is a sauce that you pour over the duck you can, of course, prepare the duck in a manner of different ways. Here are two examples - one from a website called Reluctant gourmet - although in modern style the sauce is under, not over the duck, and Duck breast with bigarade sauce from the Michelin starred Alain Ducasse. And I have to say that in spite of the prominence of the sauce in the dish's title you can't see much of it. It really looks to be more of a salad anyway.

Duck à l'orange, on the other hand, tends to be a whole roast duck cooked with oranges in some way. And there is lots of argument over how best to roast a duck. I think I'll save that for another time because really some of the methods were pretty amazing. And of course these days you don't even have to have a whole duck - you can just do it with breasts, and/or legs. Nigella's method was pretty simple - put half a Seville orange in the duck and squeeze the other half over the duck with perhaps some honey and/or sesame oil. Roast in a hot oven (210ºC) for 40 minutes and just pour the juices over the duck. No need to make a separate sauce, though you can thicken the juices with flour if you like. No picture of this version I'm afraid.

It seems that the real craze for duck à l'orange came from Julia Child.

"it is my understanding that it was Julia Child who made duck a l’orange famous, with her classic book Mastering the Art of French Cooking that came out in 1961. ... each interpretation here in the USA became less complex and sweeter. Much sweeter. ... So by the time I first ate it, maybe in 1979 or thereabouts, duck à l’orange was sugary, gloppy and generally unpleasant. I grew to hate it." Hank Shaw - Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

But he revisited the original Julia Child recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and was won over. The rather beautiful looking result is shown here.

Still in the 60s and 70s, Robert Carrier of course included it in his Great Dishes of the World, but in his Robert Carrier Cookbook he has a rather more tempting variation Canard braisé à l'orange. It's pretty simple. Sauté your duck pieces in butter and then simmer for 45 minutes. Add two thirds of your 1/4 pint of Cointreau and simmer for a bit. Take out the duck, add 1 tablespoon each of sugar and vinegar, juice of 1 orange and 1/4 pint beef stock cook, bring to boil then simmer for 10 mins. Segment four oranges and put segments in a saucepan. Skim fat off sauce and pour through a sieve over the oranges, season with salt, pepper and the rest of the Cointreau, bring to a boil and serve with the duck.

Elizabeth David has an even simpler braising recipe. The duck (a whole one) is just put in a casserole with 1/2 pint orange juice, 1/2lb tomatoes, an onion, a clove of garlic, a sprig each of marjoram and parsley, a bayleaf, 1 oz ground almonds, 1 oz raisins, 2 tablespoons vinegar, half a teacupful of water, salt and pepper. Cook gently on the stove or in the oven for 2 3/4- 3 hours. Take out duck, strain sauce (pouring off fat). Carve duck and reheat in sauce. Or serve cold. She says it's adapted from a Mexican recipe.

At some point after the 70s the popularity of Duck à l'orange waned, probably because of (a) its popularity and (b) those too sweet versions. Now if you see duck on a restaurant menu it is more likely to be served with morello cherries, pomegranate or figs than oranges. However, duck itself has not disappeared, indeed with the increasing availability of duck breasts, marylands, etc. it is increasingly appearing in trendy recipe books - often with some kind of orange component. For orange and duck appears to be a match made in heaven. Here are just some that I found. I also noticed that there was a distinctly Asian touch to some of them:

Duck with blood orange, shallots and chard and Duck with ginger and citrus from Nigel Slater; Seared duck breast with blood orange and star anise from Yotam Ottolenghi - not that you can see the blood orange much here; Roast duck with orange and rhubarb from Rodney Dunn - this looks rather gorgeous; as does Donna Hay's Orange and juniper roast duck; Roast duck with orange, soy and ginger from Nigella Lawson - this one seems to be very popular; Delia Smith is rather more conservative with her Roast Seville Orange glazed duck with port wine sauce; as is Brigitte Hefner with her Duck with orange and quatre épices; and for something just a bit different there is Coles offering of Pan-seared duck breast and orange butter sauce

Then there are the Asian versions or the modern Asian influenced versions: Tamarind and orange roast duck with warm pear salad from Taste - a very typical modern dish I think; Crispy duck with clementines and kumquats from Tessa Kiros in her book from Provence to Pondicherry with this recipe being from Vietnam and Vit nau cam (Duck à l'orange) from Luke Nguyen also from Vietnam, and finally from China, Charmaine Solomon's Duck with tangerine sauce (apologies no recipe for this - it's a bit long to reproduce).

But you could always just try a fairly straightforward and classic recipe from Epicurious.

"The culinary equivalent of flared trousers." says Gordon Ramsay, but don't be put off. You should be able to find something tempting to try amongst all of those above. Besides he himself has a recipe that he maintains is worth doing - adapted from the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook man I quoted above - the 'original' Julia Child version.


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