This charming, rustic recipe comes from Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, one of the landmark cookbooks of the Italian renaissance. Everything is simmered together until the duck meat almost falls from the bone. I’m always astonished by the potent, spicy sauce with its underlying sweetness of dried fruits. Scappi does not mention salt, but instead adds ham in much the same way that Italian cooks today season with grated Parmesan cheese. I’d strongly advise cooking the duck ahead – the spices blend and mellow, while the fat that rises to the surface of the sauce during cooking is all the easier to skim after it has solidified after chilling.

Serves 4
1 whole duck (about 4½ lb) preferably with giblets
2 medium onions, quartered
¾ cup pitted prunes
¾ cup dried cherries or currants
½ lb cooked lean ham, finely chopped
1 bottle (375 ml) robust red wine
½ cup/125 ml red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon chopped sage
2-3 teaspoons five-spice powder or French quatre-épices

1. Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Trim the duck of excess fat and truss it with string. Combine all the other ingredients in the casserole, stirring to mix them well. Immerse the duck in the pot, breast downwards, pushing it down among the other ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil on top of the stove.

2. Transfer to the oven and bake, occasionally skimming the copious fat that rises to the surface, until the duck is very tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork, 1½-2 hours. For the last half hour of cooking, remove the lid and set the duck on its back so the skin browns while the sauce and garnish thicken. Skim as much fat as possible from the surface of the sauce (this is easier if you remove the bird temporarily). It helps to chill the casserole overnight, so the fat rises to the top and solidifies.

3. If necessary, reheat the casserole on top of the stove. Transfer the bird to a platter and spoon the onion and fruits around it, discarding the giblets. If the sauce is thin, boil to reduce it until fairly thick. Taste, adjust the seasoning and serve the sauce in a bowl. Discard the trussing strings from the duck just before serving. It can be carved at the table or cut up in the kitchen and laid on top of the fruit and vegetables.