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You'll Need a Mallet to Eat This Roast Duck

British chef Stevie Parle’s clay-baked duck has become a signature dish at his London restaurant. Cooked with treacle, thyme, and star anise, a mallet is required to break through the clay coating and release the perfectly cooked meat within.
January 3, 2016, 11:00am
All photos by the author.

I'm smoothing a thin sheet of river clay over a cold, dead duck when I suddenly remember Mr Kite.

Mr Kite was my sister's duck and she lived at the bottom of our garden. Along with Dickie (who had a penis like pink fusilli pasta) and Buttercup, who was a creamy white and would frequently shit on her own feet.

I'd hatched all three of them at nursery, turning their eggs over every morning in the incubator until they were big enough to be packed up in straw and brought home to live in my garden. They played in my paddling pool when it was sunny and quacked in our kitchen when it snowed.

READ MORE: Cooking Wild Duck Is a Plucking Matter

And here I am, wrapping one of Mr Kite's cousins in clay, on the banks of London's Greenwich Peninsula, like a member of the anatidae mafia. Would I, I wondered, really be able to eat a duck?

But let's start from the beginning. Craft London is a new restaurant, cafe, bar, and shop from ex-River Cafe chef Stevie Parle and designer Tom Dixon. I have come here to try making their signature dish: clay-baked duck with brine-pickled carrots and cabbage. The dish, which has to be pre-ordered to allow for its extensive preparation process, has been lauded by London food critics, Instagrammed by Nigella Lawson, and heralded by The Guardian as one of the summer's "cult" food dishes.

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After arriving at Craft little early, I sit in the cafe downstairs and have a tea, served out of the sort of ceramic pot I used to take camping, surrounded by flowering courgette plants and soft grey tiles.

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Shaping the river clay to cover the poached duck. All photos by the author.

It's lovely. Until, suddenly, I'm being whisked upstairs by Parle, past the most enormous pair of Crocs I've ever seen, to get decked out in chef's whites. I've never worn proper chef's whites before. I look like a cross between Neru and the Swedish one from The Muppets.

"Quite a lot of different cultures do it," says Parle, leading me into the small, cool curing room behind the kitchen, where a massive block of clay and a tray of free range ducks are sitting on a large wooden sideboard. "In New Zealand they have hangi."

Ah yes, the hangi. As the daughter of a New Zealander, I have performed a fair few hangis in my time—heating a set of rocks in a fire until they're white hot, lowering a crate full of cabbage-wrapped meat over them, and then burying the whole thing in earth for up to eight hours until it's cooked to falling-off-the-bone perfection.

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The duck covered with clay casing. The clay covered duck before baking.

Like all the best things in life, Parle says he got the idea for clay-baked duck from "just Googling shit."

"This restaurant is about British stuff," he explains. "I want British things. So I was looking at ancient Celtic cooking techniques and we got to clay-baking."

What's amazing about clay-baking is that it keeps all the meat juices in the bird, so there's no need for basting. No need to do anything, in fact, until it's time to smash the whole thing open with a hammer.

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Each duck is put in a 14 percent brine with treacle, thyme, and star anise before being poached. We tuck the legs into the ribcage, like a shop assistant folding a jumper, and pop the duck in a huge pot of stock. This one, Parle tells me proudly, has been going for two months, handing me a spoonful of the mixture to try. It tastes sweet, deep, and meaty.

As the duck poaches next door, Parle and I start to spread the chunks of clay out over each tray. I push the cold, grey clod into each corner with the heel of my hand, in the same way I used to as a child, playing in one of my mum's art classes. It's soothing, tactile, and pleasantly familiar.

Once the duck has been poached and cooled, Parle starts to scatter hay across the clay bases. Very like decking out the duck houses, I think briefly, before willing away the comparison. In this case, the hay will give the duck a unique, almost-smoked flavour.

Parle pops the duck on top of this farmyard setting before painting it in a treacle-miso glaze and blitzing the entire thing with a blowtorch. The skin crackles and darkens while I stand, fixed to the spot, passing a little lump of clay from palm to palm.

He doesn't, I notice, offer me a torch. Probably for the best. I lost most of an eyebrow while trying to light a cigarette in a bus shelter when I was about 13 and haven't done much welding since.

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Chef Stevie Parle blitzes the treacle-miso glazed duck with a blow torch before encasing in clay. Parle breaking open the clay-baked duck with a pestle.

We then wrap the duck in blanched cabbage leaves, to keep the bird moist, before rolling out the top sheet of clay between two little squares of what looks a lot like tarpaulin. Once it's the right thickness, Parle lifts the whole, circular sheet with the rolling pin and carefully lays it across the top of this green, duckish mound. I then set to, smoothing over any crinkles with a wet finger, patching up any holes, pushing the clay into position until it looks, well, like an upside down pot. But I'm not finished yet.

"We just need to make an opening," says Parle, pushing his finger up into a smooth, clay bumhole. Well, of course.

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On a busy day, Craft London will have to prepare up to 20 clay-baked ducks, so they've got the whole process down to a fine art. My effort, I'm afraid, took a little longer. But it goes into the oven nonetheless—at 200 degrees for 30 minutes. I watch as the clay dries and starts to crack, and smudges of hot brown fat bubble at the seams.

When my duck is cooked, Parle brings it over to the table on a copper tray, surrounded by pine leaves. I can't help but notice he's holding a rather large black club in his right hand. Have I really been that annoying?

READ MORE: Why I'm a Closeted Duck Hunter

Thankfully this hammer, which is actually a pestle used to grind up spices, is to crack open my lunch. Parle starts to tap along the top. The grey shell cracks and a cloud of steam rushes past my face as we peel back the leaves, hay, and clay to unearth a perfect roasted duck.

At this point, you may be wondering if my sentimentality got the better of me. If my childhood wading through duckshit and clearing out soupy green ponds for Buttercup would leave me paralysed. If my tender love of Mr Kite would render me unable to eat this dish.

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Clay-baked duck with pickled cabbage, pink carrots, and hot miso sauce.

Well, dear reader: it didn't. Not even nearly. I ate that whole fucking duck—along with a roll of pickled cabbage, slices of pink carrots, and even a hot miso sauce—like a woman possessed. I ate it until my zip burst. I ate it so quickly there was hardly even time to take a photo. And it was delicious.

Sorry, Buttercup.