Duck is a bird which doesn’t belong to the British culinary tradition as much as it is present in the Italian one, especially in the North. More expensive than a traditional chicken, its meat tends to be more gamey and rich in flavour and, unlike chicken, ideally lends itself to lengthy and stew-like dishes. In Italy, the origin of this ragu, as always, is very disputed. Some believe that in the sixteenth century duck was first used by Catherine de’ Medici who, thanks to her mixed Italian and French background, was more open to culinary innovations. The river Arno, in Tuscany, was home to plenty of birds which were not exploited in the kitchen before and her idea was to make ragu out of them. However, others believe the recipe actually originated in the Veneto region, where the so-called anatra muta (muscovy duck, Cairina muschata) had been long domesticated and a lighter version of the modern ragu was eaten with bigoli, a type of pasta which resembles spaghetti, only thicker and hollow inside.
It’s interesting to notice how the Venetian vernacular word for ‘duck’ is ‘arna’, which bears a strong similarity to the name of the Tuscan river. I wonder whether this might explain a couple of things. Nevertheless, duck in the UK is commercially available either in supermarkets or from your local butcher. For this recipe, I suggest going for breast rather than leg. Although the original recipe (from the BBC Good Food magazine) suggested to use leg, I find it too fatty, not meaty and not suitable for this sauce. Duck breast has the advantage of having a very stringy texture, which resembles that of pulled pork. I find it very satisfying to bite into a shredded piece of meat in a ragu, but be free to experiment with leg as well. In addition, as with all ragus, this is a slow cooked sauce. Ideally, you want to cook it for a minimum of 2 hours, although I slowly simmered for 4 hours and the meat was succulent, tender and juicy. You don’t have to do much in the meantime either, just stir it occasionally, which means you can get on with your domestic chores and still enjoy a wonderfully rich meat sauce with your pasta.
- 4 duck breasts
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp plain flour
- 250ml full-bodied red wine
- 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
- 250ml strong chicken stock
- 3 rosemary sprigs, leaves picked and finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp milk
- 600g pasta (I used manfredine, but any tubular or long pasta would do)
- olive oil
- salt & pepper
- Parmesan, to serve
- Heat some olive oil in a large pan. Add the duck breasts and brown on both sides, then set aside to cool slightly.
- Add the onions to the pan and cook until softened, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the cinnamon and flour and cook for a further minute, stirring frequently so as not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan.
- Take the skins off the duck breasts and return them to the pan, then add the wine, chicken stock, tomatoes, herbs, sugar and some seasoning. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and leave to cook for 2 hours, stirring every now and then.
- Lift the duck breasts out of the pan and put them on a plate/chopping board. Using two forks, pull the meat apart, then return to the sauce. Add the milk and simmer, covered, for another good hour.
- Remove the lid and simmer, uncovered, for another 45 minutes, until the sauce has thickened nicely and is not watery anymore.
- Cook the pasta according to packet instructions, then drain and toss with some of the sauce and a cup of the reserved pasta cooking water. Sprinkle with some parsley and decorate the plate with either grated Parmesan or cheese shavings.