Venetians themselves are not really meat eaters; their watery surroundings naturally drove them to a seafood based cuisine. However, as we move inland from Venice to the mainland on our Veneto walking tours and cycling trips, the low-lying wetlands that exist around the Po, Brenta, and Adige river valleys are perfect breeding ground for a wide variety of waterfowl. These various species were valued and hunted by the locals for hundreds of years. For Hemingway enthusiasts, recall Major Cantwell revisiting the last romance of his life in Venice as he huddles in a duck blind during a hunt (well, the blind was actually in Trieste, you get the idea – his last romance was in Venice.)
All along the waterways leading to the Venetian lagoon, we see the food products used in the local cuisine, from rice for risottos, to fresh-water fish, to waterfowl. Traditionally there was an enormous variety of water birds that were hunted and used for food. Each would be prepared in a particular way, designed to exhibit (or hide) its particular characteristics. Nowadays, we see recipes that call for “duck”, years ago, you would prepare each particular variety in a slightly different way. The most prized species of duck “germano reale”, the familiar Mallard, even had different preparation techniques for the female (boiled, and used for stock) than the male (roasted). There is a specific recipe for the pintail duck, another for the teal, the tufted duck, the coot, and so forth. Waverly Root describes recipes in which the not-particularly attractive taste of heron and curlew is disguised with a lengthy marinade in white wine, lemon juice, consomme and herbs.
When using meat in a recipe in the Veneto, you will most likely see it chopped up and used in some sort of sauce, rather than served in large pieces as is done in most meat loving regions. Poultry in general is more popular in this region than beef or other meats, undoubtedly due to the availability of waterfowl in the low-lying wetlands of the region. Throughout the area, you will see a meaty duck sauce served in a variety of different ways. In Venice, it might include tomatoes and be served over gnocchi. In Vicenza, it will be served over the favorite local pasta, bigoli, not often seen here in the US, but most closely resembles bucatini, a wide, hollow, spaghetti.
Brenta River in Bassano del Grappa
The following recipe I have translated and adapted from “Ricette di Osterie del Veneto”, by Slow Food.
Bigoli con L’Anatra – Bigoli with Duck
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 duck, cut into quarters
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 celery stalks, peeled and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup low-salt chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 fresh bay leaf or 1/2 dried
1 lb. fresh bigoli or other pasta
Freshly grated Grana cheese, for serving (optional)
Heat the oil heavy-duty pot over medium-high heat. Season the duck with salt and pepper and place them in the pot, skin side down. Sear until the skin is browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Turn the pieces over and brown the other sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the duck and pour off all but about 1 Tbs. of the rendered fat and discard or save for another use.
Reduce the heat to medium low. Put the celery, onion, and carrot into the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.
Pour in the wine and increase the heat to high. Boil until wine is reduced by 1/2, then reduce the heat to medium. Add the broth, tomato paste, sage, rosemary and bay leaf, stirring to combine. Return the duck to the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, just enough to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and simmer until the meat is fork-tender, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Remove the duck from the pot and set aside until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, skim the excess fat from the top of the sauce with a large spoon. If the sauce seems thin, continue simmering until thickened to desired consistency.
Discard the duck skin and shred the meat. Add the shredded meat to the sauce. Let the sauce simmer gently for 15 minutes; discard the garlic and bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water and then drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the pot and toss it with some of the ragù, adding a little cooking water if it seems dry. Serve the pasta with more ragù spooned over the top, garnished with freshly grated Grana cheeese.
The ragù can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat gently before tossing with pasta.