The Duck They Drool About
Gourmets, and people who just like to eat, are clamoring for Brome Lake duck, a mouth-watering “native” dish that came to Quebec via China and Long Island, N.Y.
SINCE 1945 the tawny flesh of Brome Lake duck has titillated the palates of gourmets from all over the world and challenged the Winnipeg goldeye as Canada’s most delectable native dish. Its plump breast, juicy legs, crisp wings and the crackling sapidity of its skin have promoted it in the esteem of gastronomes to the rank of caviar, foie gras, bouillabaisse, oysters, lobsters, filet mignon, artichokes, truffles and crêpes suzette.
Lucien Barraud, head chef of Montreal’s Mount Royal Hotel, said recently: “There is no duck in the world today to compare with Brome Lake in flavor, tenderness and uniform year-round quality.”
Ironically, this Canadian delicacy originated in China. An odd duck, which never takes to water, it gained international demand almost overnight without benefit of advertising, but still makes little money for its producers. Although its name is billed prominently on menus across Canada, lesser ducks are often foisted on the public as the Brome Lake breed. And it was started on the road to renown largely because the residents of a resort didn’t want a factory cluttering up their beach.
About a hundred and thirty thousand ducks are hatched every year by the. shores of Brome Lake, fifteen miles north of the Vermont border, in the humpy pinelands of southern Quebec. As day-old ducklings, a third of them are transferred for rearing to a second duck farm at StoufFville, thirty miles north of Toronto.
The two farms are owned by Brome Lake Ducks Ltd., which is controlled by two wealthy Montrealers, Earle Spafford, retired president of the Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada, and G. B. Foster, an eminent lawyer.
When they bought the duck company out of bankruptcy in 1939 and became president and vicepresident, Spafford and Foster looked on its operation as a hobby. It was their manager, Stephen Morson, a bulky, tweedy, pipe-sucking Englishman of forty, who popularized Brome Lake ducks.
Most of the ducks are distributed to the more expensive hotels and restaurants throughout Canada, to TCA and BOAC aircraft, to CPR, CNR, CSL and Cunard passenger vessels, and to railroad companies on both sides of the border. Only a few are left for retail sale through Montreal firms like Dionne’s, Steinberg’s, Gat°nouse’s and other firstclass grocers and poulterers.
The ducks are purebred descendants of the Imperial Pekin, which the Chinese were eating centuries before the birth of Christ. The great mandarins ate only the skin, classing it with birds’-nest, soup and nightingales’ tongues, and contemptuously left the flesh to their servants.
More than two thousand years ago these birds had lost the power of flight or the urge to swim. They developed a capacity for putting on flesh more quickly than any other edible creature. Even today, after centuries of intensive cultivation, the average farmyard chicken is only half the weight of an Imperial Pekin when both sprout their first adult feathers. If a steer could be made to grow as fast as an Imperial Pekin a ton of beef would be produced in nine weeks.
For dynasty upon dynasty the Chinese dined upon the Imperial Pekin. Chinese who emigrated to America found the local ducks so inferior that they built up a huge import traffic of Imperial Pekins from China. The ducks were shipped to them boned, pressed flat and dried, and these curious pancakes of poultry may still be seen hanging in the grocer'es of any occidental city’s Chinatown.
Meanwhile the people of North America were raising Aylesbury, Khaki Campbell and Indian Runner ducks, descendants of European flocks brought out by early settlers. If properly bred, fed and killed at the crucial time such ducks make good eating. The Aylesbury, for example, is still the most highly relished table bird in England.
But most of them are raised casually, often for sentimental reasons. Farmers are inclined to keep a few ducks because their fathers did it before them. Many ducks so reared are multiple hybrids. The mixed domestic strains have been further crossed with wild mallards and teals, which occasionally consort with tame ducks for the sake of easy farmyard food, and abandon their rugged migratory life for the comforts of the barn. Such mongrels pick up worms from puddled farmyards and plant life from stagnant ponds.
Because a few people prefer duck eggs for eating, and especially for cooking, there has always been a small income from them. But when these birds are finally killed, after two, three or four years, they are no treat. Probably they inspired those lines of the late Ernest Vincent Wright:
Then all of us prepare to rise
And hold our bibs before our eyes And be prepared for some surprise When father carves the duck.
Small wonder then that widespread indifl'erence and even antipathy to domestic duck flesh has prevailed on this continent. It is estimated that twelve chickens and four turkeys are still killed in North America for every duck. Jewish and Central European peoples, traditional duck eaters, have always had difficulty getting good table birds in the West. For generations they have patronized obscure dealers whose “in” with farmers amounts almost to a cabal and whose feather-strewn back-street stores are a big-city curiosity.
It was not until eighty years ago that the prospects of getting good duck flesh began to look up in North America.
In 1873 a man called McGrath, a New Yorker and an employee of merchants in the China trade, spotted a flock of white ducks near Pekin. He mistook them for small geese. They had an erect carriage, a raucous voice, and a baleful eye and they reminded him of a “droll, warmhearted and slightly drunken ne’er-do-well.”
When McGrath heard that this duck was the base of many delicious Chinese dishes he bought a clutch of eggs and set a broody hen upon them. After they hatched he persuaded a friend, James E. Palmer, to take them back to the States. Palmer was to give half of them to McGrath’s family and keep the rest himself.
Nine ducks survived the trip. Palmer gave five to McGrath’s family who promptly ate them. The more prudent Palmer kept his four birds and imported six more females and four drakes the follow7ing year.
News of the ambrosial flavor of Palmer’s ducks spread like feathers in a breeze. Somebody else in California imported a further four ducks and borrowed one of Palmer’s drakes. Within five years many others were breeding Imperial Pekins, the majority of them on Long Island.
By 1912 the Imperial Pekin, or Long Island duck as it was now called, had New Yorkers smacking their lips. The creeks and inlets of t he island were so white with ducks that it almost looked as though they were frozen over. And here it must be noted that the Imperial Pekin had taken to the water—a most significant point.
In 1912 an American, the late Henry Bates, a jovial, optimistic farmer, thought it would be duck soup if he moved into Canada, bred Imperial Pekins on Brome Lake and tried to duplicate in the Montreal market what the Long Islanders had done in New York.
He let his ducks swim on the lake. And he failed.
In 1917 it looked as though his duck farm on a strand of dry sandy land by the fashionable resort of Knowlton was going to fall into the hands of a man who wanted to build a knitting mill. This
threw the affluent Montrealers who owned summer homes by the lake into a panic.
The late Senator G. G. Foster, father of the present vice-president of Brome Lake Ducks Ltd., enlisted the help of summer neighbors his son today calls them “suckers” and bought up the duck farm to thwart the knitting mill.
The ducks went on swimming and the business went on foundering.
During the Twenties and Thirties a group of Montreal poulterers ran the farm but they were hardly ever out of the red.
In 1934 Stephen Morson, son of an English vicar, graduated from Macdonald College, the agricultural school at McGill University. The depression was on and the only job he could get was as a hired hand at the Brome Lake Duck Farm.
Morson had read a lot about the Imperial Pekin and he saw7 many reasons for the company’s shaky finances. But as a hired hand he couldn’t say much. By 1939 the farm foundered into bankruptcy.
Once more the shadow of the knitting mill darkened the dappled waters of Brome Lake. Spafford and Foster bought the farm to preserve its site and protect the rural beauty from industrialization. They reorganized it and hoped to break even.
Meanwhile Morson had gone to England on a trip with his Canadian bride, who wanted to meet her in-laws. They were trapped there by the war. Morson served below decks in an RN destroyer, sucked his pipe and thought fondly of ducks and distastefully of water.
During the war the meat shortage helped sales and Brome Lake duck began to figure more widely on menus. But it wasn’t until Morson returned in 1945 and was appointed manager that everybody began talking about them.
By then there were twelve million Imperial Pekins in North America, the vast majority selling under the name Long Island duck. Morson knew that if his own Imperial Pekins were to withstand such hot competition they would have to taste different—and better.
His employers say he has succeeded in bringing this about. Not a single salesman is employed and the farm staff at Brome Lake has never numbered more than twelve. Yet today the flesh of its ducks has been acclaimed not only across Canada but from London to Tokyo and from Buenos Aires to Brisbane.
The Pirates Move In
It was the airlines and shipping companies that spread the reputation of Brome Lake duck overseas. To identify themselves with the Canadian passenger business they made a feature of the duck on their menus. Incoming passengers, having eaten the duck aboard a plane or ship, began asking for it in Canadian restaurants. A chain rej action set in.
“People just seemed to like the meat,” Foster says. “Before we knew where we were it was world-famous. But we still make very little money out of it. It’s a terribly hazardous business. ”
The vacuum between supply and demand has been filled by restaurateurs who pirate the registered trademark. Lawyer Foster says ruefully: “If 1
prosecuted everybody who misrepresents duck as Brome Lake I’d never be out of court. Our attitude, however, is now stiffening and we are ready to sue in the more flagrant cases.”
Brome Lake ducks might easily have been blanketed out by immensely greater numbers of Long Island ducks. Some big farms on Long Island produce two hundred and fifty thousand each a year, nearly twice as many as the two Brome Lake farms combined. Nor is the distinction of Brome Lake duck particularly obvious.
Sybarites of the table relish both birds because they are killed almost to the day when the flesh reaches the apex of its succulence. That is at the moment the last baby down is shed and the bird has developed a weight of beLween five and a half and six pounds. The earlier this phase can be achieved, the better, since the younger the bird the sweeter the meat. Whereas most other ducks reach this desirable condition in about twelve weeks the Imperial Pekin does it in nine.
Arguments between the relative merits of the Brome Lake and Long Island Imperial Pekins inevitably hinge on the question: should a duck swim? Long Island ducks swim in concrete basins through which fresh water is constantly flowing. A few Brome Lake ducks at Stouffville, as an experiment, are permitted to swim in pens sunk into a clean fast-running stream. But Morson is a confirmed dry-duck man.
“When they swim,” he says, “they get oily. They generate natural oils to resist the water and this spoils the taste. Furthermore, Pekins don’t care about swimming. They never did in China. Why should they here?”
During wet weather Morson’s neighbors hail him with the cry “Nice weather for ducks!” Nothing could he farther from the truth. Ducks are miserable in rain. One reason why the Brome Lake duck is such good eating is the dry sandy nature of the soil on which it is bred.
Another reason is the purity of its Pekin blood. The huge farms on Long Island are a decoy for other ducks. The large numbers of birds kept and the element of freedom they enjoy while swimming makes control difficult. Over the years they have been crossed to some extent with other ducks.
The battle between Brome Lakers and Long Islanders is a David-andGoliath affair but it never seems to upset Morson’s English phlegm. From morning till night his eye is roving over thousands of ducks in various stages of growth. His home on the farm where he lives with his wife and two children is crammed with porcelain duck ornaments and the walls of all the buildings are hung with calendars illustrating every type of duck known to man. He says in his whimsical way: “My favorite movie star is Donald Duck.”
At Brome Lake he keeps three breeding groups of a hundred birds each, and supervises them closely. They lay at different periods and ensure a yearround supply of eggs. Every night the eggs are collected, candled, graded and washed. Each Monday and Thursday between five hundred and fifteen hundred eggs are placed in incubators in the big brick hatchery. Each Monday and Thursday, exactly twenty-eight days later, between five hundred and fifteen hundred ducklings break through the shells. All the ducklings in each hatch remain together for the duration of their life —exactly nine weeks.
.lust Like An Assembly Line
There are seven duckhouses, each extending for five hundred feet. In the cold months the ducklings move from pen to pen in weekly stages down these houses. The first two weeks are spent ■ in nursery pens, the next five in growing pens, and the last two in fattening pens. Every week the temperature in which they live gets a little cooler.
From start to finish they have access twenty-four hours a day to pellet feed, which runs down from a hopper, and to fresh water in constant flow along a metal gutter. The floors are covered with clean pine shavings which are changed every day.
After nine weeks they waddle with slow solemnity, rather like an elderly choir, toward the slaughterhouse. Here they seem poignantly anxious to get inside and are admitted one at a time to be stuck and bled.
The downy feathers are removed by a machine, sucked up a pipe to a loft, and collected for sale to the makers of pillows, mattresses, quilts, lifebelts and women’s hats. The pin feathers are plucked by hand. To ensure that no feather remains the duck is dipped in molten wax. When the wax sets it is broken apart and the yellow flesh is left quite bald. The ducks are then thrown into a vat of ice-cold water which chills them slowly. They are hung overnight in a refrigerator and next morning delivered to wholesalers in Montreal by truck.
“It’s more like an assembly line than a farm,” says Morson, “but it’s not quite as simple as it looks.”
It took several years of experiment to discover that best ratio of drakes to ducks is one to four. Fewer drakes mean more unfertilized eggs. More drakes mean overfertilized eggs which do not develop. Oddly enough, wild drakes of every breed are strictly monogamous. But any wild drake, if domesticated, becomes at once polygamous.
A week or so after the hatch all imperfect ducklings are weeded out and destroyed. “Some farms rear blind or
lame ducks,” says Morson, “but not this one. Unless a duck is well formed it doesn’t feed properly.”
Ducks quack when they are nervous and since the Pekin is an exceptionally timid bird you would expect the Brome Lake farm to sound like a bargain basement on sales day. But there is rarely a sound. Morson has discovered that ducks don’t like darkness, so he keeps soft lights burning in the duckhouses twenty-four hours a day. “Ducks are like people,” he says philosophically. “The jittery ones rarely get fat.”
When the ducks quack Morson knows
a rat has got into the pens. He wages a constant war on rats with poison and traps.
In summer the ducks live in open-air pens laid out for progressive development in the same manner as the houses. Weasels, mink, coons, foxes and skunks prowl round these open pens like enemy patrols, and owls, hawks and eagles hover overhead like enemy fighters, all looking for the chance to seize a Brome Lake duck dinner. When they get too close the ducks stort quacking for Morson who charges out at all hours with his shotgun ready for action.
Last year Morson shot an eagle with a five-foot wingspread and a great owl more than two feet tall which now stands stuffed in his office. In spite of these hazards and the added hazard of illness the pre-slaughter mortality rate is only eight percent.
One subject on which Morson is cagey is feed. He is forever experimenting with new mixes and keeps his formulas secret, although he admits that the hard dry pellets contain bran, alfalfa, soya meal, barley, oats, liver meal, beef scraps and fish meal.
In its brief span each duck eats twenty pounds of feed. The feed costs a dollar twenty-five per duck. Add to this electricity charges, maintenance of machinery, trucks and buildings, the wages of twelve men and packing and j shipping costs and it is understandable | why the Brome Lake farm’s bank bal| anee doesn’t wax as fat as its poultry, j Morson gets around two-forty per duck from the wholesalers. The ducks retail according to weight for between three and four dollars each.
With every duck Morson gives away a card of cooking advice. He suggests the duck be cooked in the oven from i one and a half to two hours. After I the first hour the fat should be drained ;
! off and a small cup of water added to j the dish. His stuffing is a mixture of j onions, bread crumbs, mashed potatoes, butter and sage.
Mount Royal chef Lucien Barraud specializes in salmis of duckling. He cuts up the legs and breast of the j duckling and braises them in a red | wine sauce in a casserole dish. He j thinks white turnips and olives are the | best vegetables to serve with duckling. ¡ Barraud also likes to boil a duck and j serve it cold with slices of oranges. [ “There is often an inch of flesh on the I breast of the Brome Lake birds, wonderful for duck,” he says.
Many French chefs fry the duck whole in a deep saucepan full of butter I with parsley, thyme and a bay leaf for j flavoring. The Danes roast duck with j raw apples and prunes and serve it with J red cabbage. The Japanese rub a duck j with salt and let it stand for an hour, j Then they cut it into neat joints and J dip these in batter. They bake the joints slowly in an oiled dish and baste with cooking wine to which sweet seeds j have been added.
The Chinese cook duck in a wide [ variety of ways and it is the base of many of their soups. A popular recipe | is to rub the duck with honey and then ; grill it on a quick charcoal fire. As soon as the skin is crisp they remove j it and keep it hot to one side. Then ¡ they stuff the duck with chopped ! almonds, water chestnuts and bamboo j shoots. Over the skinless breast they rub a mixture of cooked ham, ginger, mushrooms and soya-bean sauce. Then they steam the duck for three hours. The hot skin is always served separately with gravy and little pancakes.
Many people think there is nothing to compare with wild duck shot during the fall. Brome Lake is full of these. Teals and mallards sneak in among j Morson’s Imperial Pekins and steal j their feed. Some of the wild ducks j have become tame and Morson keeps j a small flock of them which waddle j around with an old Imperial Pekin drake. When questioned about this j odd little group Morson becomes mysj terious and promptly changes the | subject.
Some of his neighbors at Knowlton say he is secretly raising a new type | of duck which will have that coveted | wild flavor. If this is true then the : day will come when Brome Lake duck j is Brome Lake duck indeed, and not merely the trade name for a very ! delicious but wholly alien bird. *