Picture ye olde wooden basket wine press, the kind with a big plate and screw. Now make it tabletop-sized and rendered in metal. And instead of mashing grapes, it’s designed for small animals. Anthony Bourdain called duck presses the “most medieval of all kitchen tools.” Then he bought one.
For season 2, episode 2 of The Layover, Bourdain spent a day in Paris. Between towers of langoustines and liters of natural wine, he visited E. Dehillerin, specialists in cookware since Napoleon’s time. Bourdain walked out with a large box containing a duck press.“There’s like maybe two restaurants in New York that have one of these,” he said with a big smile. “And my house. Awesome.” His duck press will be up for auction this month along with a slew of other personal effects. Bidding starts at $100 and commences October 9.
As to what it’s for, well, brace yourself for another foie gras–like example of classic French culinary torture porn. First, you kill a young duck, preferably a meaty Rouen. Historically, butchers strangled them to preserve the blood. After plucking feathers, burning hairs, scoring the carcass, and seasoning with fleur de sel, you roast the duck whole and rare with its innards intact. Then you remove the breasts, legs, and liver to fit the carcass into the press to extract jus, blood, and marrow. That goodness is then fired with butter, red wine, Cognac, and the liver until it’s properly thickened and served like black velvet over the finished breast. It’s one of the most sublime dishes on the planet.
“If you’re going to be a plant-based eater for eighty-percent of your life, when you do eat meat, you might as well do it right,” said Chef Robert Wiedmaier, owner of Marcel’s, a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C. The dish, Canard à la Presse, may look macabre, but it’s a ritual of reverence. “This duck must be raised properly and humanely killed,” said Wiedmaier, who hunts them himself. “It can’t come from some some vacuum-packed plastic that doesn’t state where it was raised, slaughtered, or butchered."
It’s a great tool for optimizing each animal consumed. “Utilize everything,” Wiedmaier said. “That’s why I love duck. We make consommé, pâté, confit of the legs, breasts for main course, necks for a great stock.” A duck press extracts every last drop of flavor. Think of it like sucking the head of a prawn, or cooking lobster shells for bisque.
I was lucky enough to enjoy the dish recently at the Michelin-starred Marchal in Copenhagen’s Hotel d’Angleterre. Executive Chef Andreas Bagh told me one version of the duck press’s origin story: “An old innkeeper with a small inn outside of Paris was making his own wine,” he said. “One day—I don’t know if he had too much of his own moonshine—he decided to use a duck instead in his wine press.” Bagh then presented a whole duck beside an exquisite hundred-year-old duck press from royal silversmith Christofle of Paris. “We’re going to extract the blood from our undercooked duck and make a sauce from that,” he said.
A 1908 book called The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe, attributes the technique not to an innkeeper but to “poor peasants of the Midi [in Southern France], who smashed with stones the carcases [sic] of their tough and skinny ducks to extract all the essences.” Other sources say it was a chef named Machenet who invented it.
What is irrefutable is how the maître d’hotel at Paris’s legendary restaurant Tour d’Argent created a world-famous pressed duck dish that still carries his name. Duckling Frédéric Delair is so lauded there that each one served since 1890 has been numbered. The Prince of Wales dined upon No. 328 that year; in 1921, Emperor Hirohito ate No. 53,211.
In 2016, a silver-plated press from Tour d’Argent fetched €40,000 ($44,000). The value of Bourdain’s chrome press is estimated at $200-$300, a steal since the cheapest one on Amazon is listed for over $2k and this beauty from Ercuis of France runs $17.5k.
“If we cook the duck the right way, you will see some beautiful red blood,” Bagh said. “This is the foundation of the entire dish.” A rich elixir trickled out like fresh espresso. “And now it gets a bit technical,” he explained. “The blood, in a raw state, has the same abilities as a raw egg. If you add heat too quickly, it will get lumpy and almost scramble.” With a stock made from the legs, he cooled the pan to 140-160ºF so that the proteins coagulated gently. When all was proper, the now-finished breasts returned to the plate with figs, potatoes, endive, and a drizzle of the sauce.
If you’re fortunate enough to be the highest bidder for Bourdain’s press, the canard party is at your place soon. Otherwise, if your immediate craving is too much to bear, seek out these restaurants: