Canard à la Presse

Growing up in America during the late 1970s and 80s, my juvenile imagination equated the word “Paris” with one thing: gourmet food. And if there was one fancy restaurant in Paris that I knew the name of as a child, it was “La Tour d’Argent.” The silver tower. The words had a ring to them, they captured everything I imagined about French sophistication and elegance. A meal at La Tour d’Argent would be served on china and eaten with silver utensils held in long fingers encased in silk gloves.

What was at the end of the fork I never paused to consider. What a surprise when, after strolling by La Tour d’Argent the other day, I looked up the restaurant and discovered that the dish which made it famous was “canard à la presse,” or in other words, duck from the vice.

The restaurant, which has worked industriously to project a reputation so powerful that even middle-class American kids (and British kids, see this video by Guardian reporter Tim Hayward) might know its name, claims a heritage dating back to the sixteenth century. But the modern incarnation of La Tour d’Argent dates to the belle époque (1890s), when owner Frédéric Delair developed a decorative silver vice to squeeze the blood from a barely cooked duckling, for the restaurant’s signature dish “canard Rouennaise.” The proper cooking of the dish begins at the abattoir, where the duck must be suffocated rather than beheaded, in order to preserve the meat’s juices. (I blogged about this French technique before in my post on the Book of Salt.) The duck is roasted and carved, then its carcass crushed within a powerful vice, yielding a livery jus that is reduced with cognac or calvados to produce a sauce renowned for its richness.

Another name for this dish is “canard au sang,” or bloody duck. Why did this gory dish come to represent the apogee of French cooking for generations of Americans who visited Paris? The Titanic had a silver duck press aboard to serve its first-class customers on its doomed maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. So popular was La Tour d’Argent among tourists, that the dining room was typically filled with English conversations. Julia Child made note of this fact when she visited La Tour d’Argent with her husband and a couple of OSS friends in 1951. “Every guest was American,” she bemoaned, blaming the depressed postwar French economy for the crowd. But to read the recent reviews on tripadvisor, or yelp, La Tour d’Argent remains packed with American tourists sixty-odd years later.

It seems fitting that Daniel Boulud, three-michelin star chef at New York City’s restaurant Daniel, chose Canard à la Presse as one of five endangered traditional French dishes to recreate with food writer and former Granta editor Bill Buford, for a recent New Yorker article . As Buford describes Boulud, he is the consummate American French chef: born and raised in France but thoroughly American in his sympathies. Rather than pursue his preservation mission in France, where Buford lives and studies French cuisine, Boulud insisted Buford come to his massive modern kitchen in New York.

But if Canard à la Presse hardly seems like the elegant French cuisine of my childhood fantasies (after all, even cast in silver, a duck press is still a machine for crushing bones), it fits quite well into my present day impression of French food. From my first lunch in Paris of tartar de boeuf, to last night’s bloody (saignant) filet de boeuf, prepared in my own kitchen from meat purchased at Hugo Desnoyer (yum!), my meals in Paris have been marked by less cooking rather than more. Meals at my price point, which are set in my own kitchen or at brasseries, not michelin-starred establishments, are more robust than refined. A livery, boozy, ducky sauce poured over duck breasts sounds pretty excellent to me. If only I could afford a visit to La Tour d’Argent…

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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