Confit de Canard smells.*
It pongs like the arsehole of a rabid badger, which has been mysteriously coated with ghee.
[Insert your own Brian May jokes here.]
Tipping it from its jar, pulling a face like Alan Rickman sniffing kippers, I decided it was probably the second worst edible food stuff I’d ever whiffed.**
“I hope it smells better once it’s cooked,” said my wife.
“I hope we don’t get botulism,” was my reply.
We’d bought the duck confit from The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury the same day we picked up this little lot…
…and were so full when the time came to eat it, we decided to simply have it on its own rather than as part of a full meal.
Before I inflicted the noxious odour on my poor nose, I had to melt the preservative duck fat by placing the closed jar in a pan of boiling water. Once done, I removed the duck legs from the gloop, placed them in a roasting tin and poured the fat back over the top.
It smelt much better after 20 minutes cooking in a hot oven. In fact it smelt bloody marvellous.
I found myself thinking of the Waterside Inn and the scent of its eternally-roasting ducks – an aroma so heady I couldn’t help but open the door to my room every ten minutes just so I could breathe it in.
The first taste was a big wow. When you eat as much terrible takeaway crispy duck as I do, it’s easy to forget what a properly-cooked leg should taste like, and the flavours here were leagues away from even my highest expectations. A jucier and more succulent piece of duck I have never had.
But it was to get better. A lot better, in fact. I’d heard people say that the best bit about duck confit is the crispy skin, but there was nothing crispy at all about the gelatinous membrane on these legs, which had all the gluey consistency of watered spunk.
I’m not particularly shy about what I eat, but this looked disgusting so I scraped it off and moved it to the edge of the plate. Lost in the bird’s moist flesh, I’d completely forgotten about it until my wife piped up to ask me if I’d tried the meat with the fat yet.
“You definitely should,” she urged. “It’s amazing.”
And amazing it was. Again my mind went back to a great meal, this time at Hibiscus, when I had duck foie gras for the first time. The flavour of the confit dish was just so much more potent with the fat involved; an intense ducky taste, light years beyond that of your pan-fried breast and other standard duck fare.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the confit wasn’t as good as the foie gras at Hibiscus or the whole-roast duck at the Waterside Inn. If you tasted them one after another, you’d think I was insane; these two limbs, which had spent god knows how long basting inside a spreadable heart attack, would not compare.
But the greatness of the duck confit – from the moment it was in the oven to the last ounce of meat I picked off the bone – was that it was good enough to help me relive a small portion of these incredible experiences in my own home, for a fraction of the cost, and with a minimal amount of effort.
There was nothing revolutionary about it; nothing that I’d I miss if I didn’t eat it again for as long as I live. But I will eat confit de canard again, definitely. I’ll eat it again, and again, and again and again.
Why? Because it was easy. And – more importantly – it was absolutely delicious.
NEXT UP: Raw Oysters
*I should probably say, for any new readers, that this is one of my Foods To Try Before You Die. I would normally mention this in the main text, but I forgot, so here you go!
**Without a bit of badger rectum added to it, ghee smells far worse.
The last time I went to the Manchester institution that is The Lime Tree in West Didsbury, I missed Noel’s House Party. Needless to say, it was a while ago.
The only things I remember about that meal are a beautiful beef carpaccio – my first experience of blue meat, and probably still the best – and a very cramped dining room.
Despite a smart facelift at some point during the last dozen years, the latter hasn’t changed much. My wife, who is only 5ft tall, managed to clatter a menu off the table adjacent to ours while taking off her coat, much to the bemusement of the man trying to read it.
If you’ve got a penchant for swinging cats while you eat, this is not the place for you.
The dining tables are also on the small side, presumably so you don’t risk giving neighbouring diners a faceful of bottom when you go to sit down. Ours was overcrowded before the menus were placed upon it. Once a bottle of wine and a jug of water joined the affray and food started to be doled out, it bordered on pure chaos.
But these proved to be only mild distractions in the grand scheme of things. As soon as a friendly member of staff had furnished me with an appealing menu and wine list, and the warm atmosphere had begun to charm, all was forgiven. Before I’d tasted a morsel, I was already thinking it would be a nice restaurant to visit with family or friends. It’s that sort of place.
Fortunately, the food did little to stop me thinking that a future trip would be a good idea.
My starter of pigeon, black pudding, belly pork and apple was excellent.* When I reviewed Jem&I in East Didsbury a few months ago, I said some of its starters reminded me of the dishes that get rejected from the first round of MasterChef. But The Lime Tree gave me a dish straight out of the final; one that would be vomit-inducingly gushed over by John and Gregg.
It was beautiful to look at. The bright pink of the sliced pigeon breast against the black of the pudding and the dark green of a spinach bed was a treat for the eyes, and it tasted as good as it looked. Each element was of quality and precisely cooked; the combination of flavours difficult to fault. The only slight issue was that the belly pork lacked crispy skin. It was one decent bit of crackling away from that irritating tension music and Gregg saying: “The winner of MasterChef 2011 is…”
Annoyingly, my main didn’t come close to the same standard, and I mostly blame myself. Unable to decide what to order, my wife suggested I ignore the other items on the menu and get a steak instead. Stupidly, I listened and broke my golden rule. Never order a steak in a restaurant that doesn’t specialise in steak.
The chips were perfectly fine and I had no quarrel with the mushrooms. It was also a nice healthy size, which isn’t always the case. But the T-bone itself was just sad. There was some flavour there; I could tell it was a good bit of meat. However, it had been cooked at too low a temperature and for too long. The outside was a pallid grey colour; the inside ranged from medium to medium-well (nothing like the medium-rare I’d requested). A good pepper sauce might’ve saved it, but this was probably the most disappointing part of the plate. Almost sickly in its creaminess, it lacked any degree of peppery bite.
Across the table my wife was enjoying some very pleasant duck in a nicely balanced orange and Cointreau sauce. The accompanying buttered veg was spot on. Trying it confirmed to me that I’d ordered badly and that my mediocre course was simply my mistake. It’s worth stressing, however, that this mistake cost £25!**
The meal got back on track with pudding. Crème brûlée – one of my all-time favourites – was done very well: the cream the right temperature; the glazed sugar the right thickness. Kirsch-soaked cherries, a decent sable biscuit and a few blobs of sauce on the side added a little bit extra. It was a satisfying way to round off the evening.
Given that my main was so weak, this probably sounds a little strange, but I strongly recommend The Lime Tree, certainly if you live in this end of south Manchester. Prices are comparable to the likes of Jem&I and No.4 Dine and Wine, but barring the one slip, the food was of a much higher standard, the ambiance was vastly superior and the wine list was a cut above.
I’ve often found with local restaurants, once they’ve been around for a few years and they’re established enough that their customer base is assured, they’ll rest on their laurels a bit, treading out the same tired dishes over and over again. It’s to the credit of The Lime Tree that well over two decades since it first opened its doors, there is little sign of this being the case.
For my money, it’s the best restaurant in Didsbury, east or west.
Just stay away from the steak.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 51/100 (Good)
*Interestingly, while I’ve been warned plenty of times over years that the dish I’ve ordered ‘may contain shot’, this pigeon was the first time I’ve ever come across some. One tiny little ball bearing, which I was tempted to keep, until I dropped it on the floor and promptly lost it.
**£25 could buy you a steak at Smoak. Think it through.
Foie gras is something I’d been desperate to taste for years. Like caviar and truffles, I think it’s well established as a must-try luxury food item – something an ordinary person can’t afford to eat regularly, but would probably be excited to eat if given the opportunity.
For some people, the controversial methods used in foie gras production (below) are enough to put them off.
In my case, it probably makes it even more appealing. It’s not that I revel in cruelty towards animals (and I should stress that this is perceived cruelty; the video does some debunking of the cruelty allegations), I’m just of the opinion that they wouldn’t bother with this production method (or be allowed to) if the end product wasn’t wonderful.
And I’m not about to walk away from the chance to taste something ‘wonderful’ just because it was made by forcing grain down a bird’s throat.
It was two-star Michelin restaurant Hibiscus in London that presented me with this chance at the end of July, rolling out a dish of roasted duck foie gras half-way through a ten-course tasting menu. The title of ‘best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life’ had already changed hands twice that night, so it was going to have to go some way to impress.*
And boy did it ever. Richer than a Russian oligarch, smoother than a Cuban cigar and with more bottle than a crate of potcheen, it was (and remains) by far and away the most flavourful thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.**
I was really surprised by how strongly the duck flavour came through. I’m not sure what I expected it to taste like, but extremely ducky wasn’t it. It tasted like they’d made a concentrate of duck breast and fat, one with a flavour ten times more powerful than that of your standard duck, and infused it into a block of clarified butter.***
I felt like I could get gout just by smelling it. And as it passed my lips, thoughts turned to the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. But as I chewed for the first time and the foie gras melted on my tongue, thoughts of anything that wasn’t directly linked to the tastegasm I was experiencing just evaporated away.
It was monumentally brilliant.
I was too distracted by what was happening in my mouth to remember how to speak, so when my wife asked me whether I was enjoying the food, my answer was simply a moan of pleasure. She apologised and said she didn’t realise I was having a bit of a moment. “Would you and the foie gras like to get a room?” she asked.
But I just ignored her. You see, the only thing that mattered in that moment was not that it was the first night of our honeymoon; the beginning of a lifetime of marital bliss. It was me stuffing my face with a fatty duck organ.
I find it very hard to express just what a revelation this dish was to me. I had no idea food could be so big and deep and powerful in flavour. It awakened parts of my tastebuds I never knew existed.
For my wife it was too much. After loving the first couple of bites, the richness began to take its toll and she stopped enjoying it.
But on me it seemed to have the opposite effect; it made it rather addictive. My stomach, my bowels, my entire digestive system began to beg for mercy, but my tastebuds were saying: “Keep shovelling this down your gob. I don’t care if your eyeballs bleed dripping and your veins turn to suet, you will keep on eating this until there is no more left.”
When finally it was all gone, I felt like I could weep. Tears of sorrow that the love I’d had was lost; tears of joy that I’d been able to love at all.
(I’m probably going a bit over the top again, but whatever, it’s my blog.)
Later on in the evening, on the table next to mine, I noticed an Australian bloke who looked like Marcus Brigstocke eating the same dish. Asked what he thought of it by a waiter, he described it as being merely “alright”.
It’s that kind of attitude that lost them the Ashes.
I didn’t think anything was going to top the foie gras during the rest of the meal, and alas nothing that followed came remotely close. Over the course of the week, as we went to a couple of three-star places and a magnificent steakhouse, a few dishes emerged that just about pipped it.
Unfortunately, the only other duck foie gras I had on the trip, at Alain Ducasse, paled in comparison. That version was seared and had a much more subtle flavour. It was still very good and indeed my wife much preferred it in this more toned-down form, but it failed to blow my socks off like the foie gras at Hibiscus.****
This was exactly the kind of experience I was after when I made The List of foods to try before I die. Hopefully there’ll be many more just like it.
Verdict: Highest possible recommendation
*Reigning champion, Big Fat Scallop, had seemed remarkably confident as the rookie ingredient made its way down to the ring. He’d ripped the belt from the claws of Raw Crab earlier in the evening and already made an impressive first defence, tapping out Marginally Overcooked John Dory in a matter of seconds. But the hulking bruiser was no match for Engorged Duck Liver, who had a move set he’d never seen before. Realising his charge didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless assault, Scallop’s trainer, the Welk, threw in the towel after two minutes.
***Incidentally, the bread at Hibiscus, in combination with a vivid yellow butter, was out of this world.
**** I think it says a lot that I barely remember what else was on the plate at Hibiscus, but my most vivid memory of the dish at Alain Ducasse is not the foie gras, but the magnificent duck blood sauce that was served with it.