On the second day, we slaughtered ducks.
Or, to be more precise, some of us slaughtered ducks, and we all plucked, butchered and ate them.
As you might expect, there are some slightly graphic photos in this post (although I left out the worst ones) so proceed at your own risk.
The day began cool and misty.
We met at the farm for strong coffee and vast quantities of freshly made bagels with homemade butter and smoked salmon. The bagels were fantastic – Neal’s wife is an amazing baker.
Garbing ourselves in fetching outfits and accompanied by extremely excited farm dogs, we went out to the duck shed and listened to Neal expound on the finer points of humane slaughter.
You have two main goals when killing an animal for meat: to spare them pain and fear, and to avoid doing anything that will decrease the quality of the meat. Neal uses a cone to confine the bird, then cleanly slits its throat (without cutting the spine) and lets it bleed out. If done correctly, the duck dies instantly, with no trauma.
Neal demonstrated the first duck. It was all over very quickly.
Did I kill a duck? No, I didn’t. I may have just been rationalizing my own fear, but I felt that it wasn’t fair for me to try killing an animal and possibly botch the job, causing it unnecessary pain, just so I could say I had done it. It would be a different story if I was planning on raising ducks and needed the practice.
That was just my own feeling. Two students in the class did successfully slaughter ducks, though, and they did a good job. The rest of us were content to watch.
After the duck has bled out, plucking is the next step. You can dry pluck, which produces a very high quality bird that keeps well, but it’s very time consuming. Since we were doing ten ducks, wet plucking was the way to go.
For the ducks’ hot water bath we were using a turkey fryer on a gas burner, which worked pretty well. The water had a bit of Dawn dish soap added in to help with the oil in the duck feathers. Each bird was lowered into the water and dunked several times, then hung by the feet in the plucking shed. This part smelled really, really bad – the clouds of hot duck steam began to send people running into the fresh air each time a new duck came into the shed.
Plucking takes a really, really long time.
The last of the pinfeathers are really hard to get out by hand. Neal showed us how to removed them by singeing (stinky and dangerous-looking), and by waxing (time consuming). Kate had brought a bottle of powdered pine resin from France, which gets rubbed into the duck feathers before dunking, and that made the plucking process a heck of a lot easier. We took to calling it the Magic French Powder.
Mostly it was lots of careful finger work. Fingernails helped.
Eventually, we broke for lunch, which was rabbit stew with potato dumplings, plus all the leftover cheeses and terrines from the day before. It made a very welcome break from the morning’s activities.
Later that afternoon, after a bit of recuperation, we butchered the ducks.
We gathered around the big farmhouse table with cutting boards, aprons and sharp boning knives.
Kate handed out a duck apiece so we could each try to clean and joint a bird. I don’t have any pictures of the process, since my hands were covered in raw duck, but suffice it to say it was a bit tricky (Neal helped us out while Kate demonstrated). Eventually we had a bowl of duck pieces for confit, a bowl of fat, a bowl of hearts and livers, and a pile of cleaned and sectioned gizzards (I wish I’d gotten a picture of those, they’re very cool looking). A relatively small amount of waste went into a bucket – mostly feet – but we would be using almost the entire bird for various dishes. The pieces for the confit (wings, legs, breasts, gizzards and necks) were well salted and laid in a tub, to be finished the following day.
For dinner that night, we each contributed one breast (called a magret) from our duck, trimmed and skinned, and Kate marinated them in Armagnac and mustard. She seared them, leaving them nice and rare, and made a pan sauce with shallots and some duck blood (which Julian, thinking it was chocolate, dipped a finger into and was somewhat startled).
There followed an argument as to whether we should have polenta or potatoes alongside. We ended up having both – potatoes roasted in duck fat (ohmigod) and soft polenta topped with duck skin cracklings (whoo).
To balance out the duck, there was also a good pile of broccoli cooked with garlic.
And wine, of course. And goody bags of local products (including madrona bark tea!) decorated by Neal’s daughters. And a pear tarte tatin for dessert. And more coffee and Armagnac. It was a good thing we were walking back to our room.
We dreamed about duck feathers all night.