This charming, rustic recipe comes from Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, one of the outstanding cookbooks of the Italian renaissance. Everything is simmered together until the duck meat almost falls from the bone and 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 in the refrigerator.

Serves 4

  • A whole duck (about 2 kg/4½lb), preferably with giblets
  • 4 medium onions, quartered
  • 170g/6oz/¾ cup pitted prunes
  • 85g/3oz/¾ cup dried cherries or currants
  • 225g/½lb cooked lean ham, finely chopped
  • 1 bottle (750ml) robust red wine
  • 125ml/4fl oz /½ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chopped sage
  • 2-3 teaspoons homemade spice powder or French quatre-épices
  • large casserole

1. Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. 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 and 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 also helps to chill the whole casserole so the excess fat solidifies.

3. If necessary, reheat the duck and garnish 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 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 fruits and vegetables.

Getting Ahead: You can cook the duck and store it, with the garnish and sauce, ready to reheat in the pot. It keeps well up to 3 days in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen.

On the Side: Polenta, whether freshly cooked, or grilled in slices, would be the ideal accompaniment, along with Braised Leeks.

In the Glass: This dish invites an Italian wine, something full-bodied to back up the fruit and spices. For cooking, and indeed for drinking, a Chianti Classico would do well. For a festive occasion, let’s be more ambitious – a rich, dark Barolo would be magnificent

Homemade Spice Powder:
Makes 1 tablespoon.
Make your own spice powder by combining ¾ teaspoon each ground black pepper and ground cinnamon and ½ teaspoon each ground cloves, grated nutmeg and ground ginger.

From Good Food NO FUSS by Anne Willan, 2003
Photo CREDIT: Roger Stowell