I had been trying to track down some duck fat - a task I hadn't realized at the undertaking would be so difficult. As it turns out, duck fat basically DOESN'T EXIST in Germany. Or so I had more or less been told. Every butcher shop or poultry store I have hit up has been unhelpful at best, down right condescending at worst. "Duck fat?" they balk. "What do you want duck fat for? I have gänseschmalz (mostly goose fat). Why don't you just use that?" And when I INSIST that I MUST HAVE duck fat, they turn back to whatever it is they were doing or the next customer while sarcastically wishing me luck. "Have you LOOKED at a duck lately? They have almost NO FAT. Why don't you buy a couple of whole birds - you might manage to squeeze a bit of fat out of them."
Undeterred, I decide to go straight to the source - the cannot-fail-surefire-if-they-don't-have-any,-I will-finally-concede-defeat source of duck fat: the French. There is a superfab French stand in my favorite bi-weekly market in Hamburg, Délice de France, with this very charming (in the Frenchest way possible) man selling patés, foie gras, cheeses, brioches, etc. Pinning all the hopes in the world on this one little food wagon, I stroll up, wait my turn in line as he charms the Hamburger hausfraus trying to decide between a creme forestière and rillette du porc, and when he turns to me with his signature, "BONJOUR MADAME! Que est-ce que je peux faire pour vous aujourd'hui?", I lay it all on the line. "Est-ce que vous avez.." I begin and then trail off because suddenly I cannot remember the word for duck fat in French. "... Duck fat?"
The man looks as though I have just asked him if he can score me some smack. He must not have heard me correctly. He looks to his left and then right and finally narrows his gaze on me. "Why?" he asks with enough suspicion to make the innocent feel extremely guilty. I tell him I need it for a duck confit. He asks me how much I need and I tell him I don't know. I don't have the recipe on me. A kilo? I offer, figuring I would err on the side of excess. And then he laughs. "How many duck legs you wanna make, one?" hawheehawheehaw. He leans across the counter and practically whispers, "You want duck fat? I will give you an entire vat of it. For free."
So I'm all, what's the catch? "Come to the slaughterhouse on Tuesday at 4 pm. I'll bring the duck legs and the fat. You bring the wine. Two bottles. And I will teach you everything you need to know (subtext: you poor ignorant American fool who I am only taking pity on because I like anyone who asks about duck fat)."
Khatir Sayad had invited people to his warehouse before to learn the tricks of the trade - tricks that he had learned while working in the kitchen with Bernard Loiseau, a five Michelin star French chef (and for you trivia fans, the basis for the chef character in the Disney movie, Ratatouille). But no one had ever shown up. Until I did. Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. as instructed, armed with two bottles of decent French wine, a notebook and a digital camera. Khatir, his brother Samir and their partner Khader were part astonished part amused when I called from the gate of the warehouse complex - which houses mainly meat packing and food shipping companies. Khatir drove out to the gate to pick me up. I stood waiting for someone to arrive on foot- so when a strange car pulled up along side me and the driver motioned for me to get in, I retreated. Until he rolled down the window and yelled, "Tu viens ou tu viens pas?" Are you coming or what?
His brother Samir
His atelier was not what I expected. There were no ducks waddling the premise awaiting the slaughter. His ducks - and geese, and pigs - were already stored away, en sous vide, neatly stacked in the fridge. There was a gorgeous old wooden table in the center of a very industrial room with white tiled walls, neon lighting, stacks of crates, an old armoir filled with moutarde and old copies of the menu from the French restaurant Khatir used to run in Hamburg, and a wine locker with bottles ranging in age from five to 50 years old.
I learned more about his background in what was part diatribe against the German character and cuisine and part declaration of love for anyone who appreciates good French food and the time and attention it takes to prepare it. He was amused by this random American woman who timidly inquired about duck fat in order to make a dish that she had no clue how to even attempt. But he gleaned an adventurous culinary spirit, an appreciation for classic French cooking and a brazen ambivalence toward large quantities of animal fat. He approved.
They invited me to sit down and poured me a glass of wine, nodding approvingly at the two bottles I had brought as an offering. We talked for 10 minutes or so and when I mentioned the duck, fearing perhaps they had forgotten WHY I had come, Khatir batted the topic away with his hand, "We'll get to that."
Four hours and several bottles of wine later, we got to that. And when we did, the process took maybe 15 minutes. Because all we did was the salaison - rubbing the meat in a mixture of salt and herbs, covering and putting it back into the fridge for the night. Khatir explained that duck meat is typically quite dry because of their diet. In order to draw the little moisture that there is in the meat to the surface, you salt it - "just like ice on zee sidewalk" he explained.
a mixture of fleur du sel, juniper berries, bay leaves and quatre epices: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black pepper, a four-fingered pinch of each, mulched together
The thing about a dish like confit is that it's so naked. Technically, yes, it's easy. However, if you fuck it up, it is painfully obvious because all you have there in front of you is a duck leg. There is no hiding your mistake under a sauce or complimenting your mistake with a side dish. There it is, SCREAMING at you from the plate. No way around it, no avoidng it.
After the salaison, I ignorantly declared, "THAT'S IT!?!? That's all there is to a confit? But that is so EASY!" Khatir looked a bit amused, a bit like he'd like to slap silly, arrogant little me. I quickly back-peddaled, blamed my inadequate French and said, "What I meant is, YOU make it LOOK so easy!" He shook his head and smiled in an I'm onto you but I'll let that one slide because you are right, IT'S MY MAD SKILLLLZZZ. And then said, "Tu es tres intelligent, Madame." Yes, a wise woman is always prepared to stick her foot in her mouth. Especially if that foot is followed by the leg of a duck.
"Come back tomorrow", Khatir said. And with that - four hours, a salaison and an embarrassing number of empty wine bottles - my first French cooking lesson came to a close.
Part deux (the part where the duck fat comes into play) to follow on Thursday...