Each May, duck shooters take to the waterways around New Zealand, for the annual game duck season. This year the season “opening day”, the first Saturday in May, is 7 May. The season then runs for three months, through our winter.
But the wild duck and its hunting season is not for all of us. There is, by alternative, the year-round domestic duck, in New Zealand - perfect for a delicious taste of a dish enjoyed throughout the country, but tracing its history back more than seven centuries, to a land far from New Zealand.
Here comes the duck season
Around the country, for one weekend or three months, shooters set themselves in their “maimais” to conceal from their targets, by rivers, lakes, lagoons or ponds. There are four species of game duck they seek: the mallard, Pacific black duck (grey duck), Australasian shoveller and paradise duck. All are protected, but may be hunted in the open season (although, for the paradise duck, only in some locations).
The mallard was introduced from Britain, back in the 1860s. It now makes up at least half the New Zealand duck population. Our native grey duck, by contrast, has declined in population, largely due to the widespread drainage of its swampland habitat. The mallard is the largest game duck, the drake often weighing around 1.5 kilograms and the female a bit less.
And duck all year round
As mentioned already, the wild duck and its hunting season is not for all of us. Instead we can rely on the year-round domestic duck - although a nice assessment we have read is that the only similarity between wild varieties and commercially-raised birds is that they both quack (and, at that, apparently only the female duck quacks…).
Of course, there is a more limited supply and only very few ducks eaten in New Zealand, as compared to the number of chickens eaten. Why is this? Apparently, ducks resist domestication. They require special handling due to their fragile legs, and consume much more feed than might be expected for a small return of flesh stretched over a large bony frame. And it needs to be a bony frame, think of the flotation required for this waterfowl. The duck produces a higher fat content, thicker skin and less meat than other poultry, but it is a delicious rich flavour.
Due to limited supply, duck is often considered luxury, or special occasion food. But we have been assured that the duck is a great example of “nose-to-tail” eating, as every part of the duck can be used in cooking. This includes the fat and even, as some have sampled, the duck tongue.
Our research shows that there is only one type of duck commercially grown here in New Zealand, the white walking duck, known as the Pekin (not Peking, the name of the dish into which many of them are added). Our strict biosecurity laws mean than no fresh or frozen duck may be imported. (The only allowable imports are shelf-stable cooked products in cans, think of those French cans of confit de canard…)
A long-standing Chinese tradition
With those cans in mind, it is generally accepted that the French - and the Chinese - are the greatest duck cooks, In those cultures, there is a far wider range of ducks from which to choose. And it is the roasted (Pekin) duck that we often see hanging in our Chinese food stores, and that is used for Peking duck, where crispy skin, rather than lots of plump meat, is the aim of the dish.
There aren’t many dishes that can claim royal lineage going back more than 700 years. Peking duck can. We have read the dish, known variously as Peking duck, Beijing duck or simply Chinese roast duck, had its beginnings in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongol Emperors ruled China.
A version of the dish appears in Yinshan Zhengyao - The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink - written in 1330 by a dietary physician for the royal court. That version calls for roasting the duck inside a sheep’s stomach.
Today, the recipe calls for whole duck, with the head still attached. Air is pumped under the skin, the bird is slathered in a sugary syrup and various spices, left to dry overnight, then roasted (but not in a stomach). It is usually served with thinly sliced spring onions, cucumbers and sauce (sweet bean, plum or hoisin), all wrapped up in small pancakes. Delicious.
But for our delicious duck idea, with (we are pleased to report) a considerably simpler preparation than that of the full Peking duck, click here.