In 2016, the volume “Das Beste vom Geflügel” (The Best of Poultry) was published in the SZ Gourmet Edition series, a cooperation between Süddeutscher Zeitung and Tre-Torri-Verlag. The editorial part was written by me and included an introduction to topics such as meat quality, hygiene and a history of chicken farming, as well as an overview of poultry species and historical and modern chicken breeds. In 2022, the volume was redesigned and published as “Geflügel” (Poultry) in the renowned Teubner Edition. As an excerpt, here are the texts on the four duck breeds:
After chickens, ducks are probably the poultry most closely connected to humans. However, they were domesticated relatively late, probably around the birth of Christ in Europe. All domestic ducks are descended from the mallard (Anas playtyrhynos) – which, as a “wild duck”, belongs to the wild fowl – and, although larger, heavier and more ponderous, often still have their characteristic plumage. The females are grey-brown and the drakes shine in splendid plumage, especially with the distinctive green-metallic neck and the violet-blue speculum across the wing.
In Europe, the breeding of ducks as commercial poultry was never as important as the breeding of geese. Nevertheless, there were regions, especially in northern Germany, where local landfalls achieved supra-regional importance, such as in Mecklenburg, around Braunschweig or in Schleswig-Holstein. Pomeranian ducks are considered to be the oldest still existing German breeding breed – purely originating from European landraces, without cross-breeding with Asian breeds – with their characteristic white breast patch (“Latz”) in the colours blue and black. Like the other duck breeds originating from old country breeds, it was bred by the farmers of the region, which until 1815 was Swedish Pomerania (hence the old name: Swedish duck), probably since the 18th century and from about 1850 onwards systematically for laying performance and fattening ability. It is therefore a classic dual-purpose duck that can weigh up to three kilograms when fully grown and whose meat is considered a real delicacy. As a pasture duck, it is not suitable for mass livestock farming; the populations have declined sharply, not least due to the war and the division of Germany, and today the breed is considered acutely endangered.
A connoisseur once wrote: “In each poultry category, France has a unanimously recognised breed abroad. For chickens it is the Bresse, for geese the Toulouse and for ducks the Rouen.” In fact, Rouennais ducks are the most perfectly selected for fattening form of wild mallard, in French “canard colvert” (from “col vert” = “green neck”). In fact, it also displays its wild colours to perfection.
These Norman ducks are said to have been bred for mass from heavy country stock as early as the 16th century. In the last third of the 19th century, drakes reached weights of 3.5 kilograms. However, as they seemed to be displaced by some modern breeds, they were quasi “regenerated” around 1910 by the breeder René Garry by cross-breeding wild ducks with the breeding goal of “volume”. Rouen-Clair drakes already reached weights of 4.5 kilograms in 1920. Much more frequently, however, young ducks (“canetons”) are marketed, which are fattened to 2 to 2.5 kilograms in eight to ten weeks.
The meat is exceptionally tasty and its quality is probably not surpassed by that of any other duck – even if there are gourmets who prefer the early-fattening ducks from Duclair, 20 kilometres west of Rouen (which, by the way, with the dark plumage and the white bib, seem to have contributed significantly to the crossbreeding of the Pomeranian duck). The best qualities are marketed as blood ducks (“canards au sang”) – a practice that is banned in Germany. In this process, the duck is not slaughtered but suffocated, leaving the blood in the body. You have to decide for yourself whether you accept this ethically. But from a purely culinary point of view, it is a sensation: deep red meat of a sensationally tender juiciness and aroma. One of the most famous ways of preparing duck meat, “Canard à la Rouennaise”, is prepared with these canards au sang – with the help of a classic duck press that passes on all the aroma of the duck carcass to the sauce.
The domestication of the mallard into a domestic duck probably took place in China 1,000 years before in Europe. This gave rise to different breeds, which differ from the European land ducks mainly in their upright posture, with their dorsal line running more horizontally. While the steep, almost penguin-like running ducks in Asia are mainly valued as laying ducks, the Pekin Duck, which reached the USA and England (Germany 1877) in 1872/73, became the economically most important classic mast duck breed in the world.
From the beginning, the USA, England and Germany recognised the superior breeding qualities of the Asian breed compared to those of the native country breeds and formed their own national breeding lines. Initially, the American breed was by far the most successful. The so-called “German Pekin” only played a role as farm poultry until the middle of the last century, since then only in breeding, i.e. as ornamental poultry. The most important success factors were, apart from the economic efficiency and enormous fattening capacity of up to 4.5 kilograms, the very high quality of the down, which came close to that of geese. Furthermore, the white plumage was preferred by the consumer, as dark feathers leave “unappetising” stubble.
Pekin Ducks have almost completely replaced the old regional breeds in breeding and are now also popular in free-range husbandry – sometimes under the name of the old country breeds. In Germany, especially the Vierländer and Oldenburg ducks clearly show Pekin Duck genetics. Above all, however, they are now fattened intensively on a large scale worldwide using floor husbandry – as a standard product in six to seven weeks and with a final fattening weight of 3.5 kilograms. The important pectoral muscle content is extremely optimised in this process, especially in the case of the world market leader, the Cherry Valley Duck (previously at 10, today at 18.3 %), with a simultaneous reduction in the fat content.
It is not without irony that the duck breed that bears a “barbarian” in its name is actually a domestic form. This is because the Warty or Turk’s Duck, as the Barbary Duck used to be called in Germany, is the form of the South American Muscovy Duck that was already domesticated by indigenous peoples and owes its name to a multi-part hump at the root of its bill that secretes a fat reminiscent of musk. However, the Warty Duck has become popular mainly because of the name ” Flying Duck” – and of course its very lean, dark and juicy meat compared to land ducks.
Barbary Ducks, which exist in the different colour varieties white, grey, dark to wild, are the super heavyweight of the international duck fattening. They show a clear sexual dimorphism: adult females reach up to five, drakes up to seven kilograms. Although the first ducks arrived in Europe as early as the 16th century, it took some time before the breed’s outstanding breeding and fattening qualities were discovered. France in particular became a centre of Flying Duck breeding in the 20th century. Today, 75 to 80 per cent of the fattening duck production there is made up of purebred Barbary Ducks and they dominate many traditional breeding regions, such as the Bresse and the Challanais in the Vendée (origin of the famous Challans or Nantais Ducks). There, they have almost completely displaced the native country breeds. The best qualities come from free-range farming, but most of the production comes from intensive farming. The worldwide breeding market is almost completely dominated by the different varieties of the supplier Grimaud.
Also marketed as Flying Ducks are Mularden Ducks (from French: mulard, mule), a cross of large Warty drakes with heavy female Pekin Ducks (sometimes also other domestic ducks such as Rouen Ducks). As hybrid animals, they are infertile, but are often used for fattening in France, for example, and are also well suited for foie gras production in addition to meat production.
Poultry (in German only)
Editorial section: Stefan Pegatzky
232 pages, size: 22 x 28 cm, hardcover, numerous illustrations