THE RISE AND RIS; E OF SUPERDUCK

Tender, lean and succulent down to the last morsel, the Trelough duck is a breed apart. Michael Bateman meets Barry Clark, the man whose de luxe birds now grace the menus of Britain's top restaurants
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The Independent Culture
BREED a better a duck and the world will beat a path to your door. That was Barry Clark's theory, anyway. Except that nobody did. So he got on his bike and beat a path to the doors of his favourite restaurants. He reckoned that places with picky chefs would jump at the choice to cook a better duck. It turned out that he was right.

The list of customers for his deluxe Trelough ducks reads like a shortlist for restaurant of the year; Alastair Little and Sally Clarke (Clarke's), Bruno Loubet (L'Odeon) and Joel Antunes (Les Saveurs) in London, Stephen Peter Markwick (Markwick's) and Martin Blunos (Lettonie) in Bristol, Michael Caines (Gidleigh Park) in Devon, Shaun Hill (The Merchant House) in Ludlow and Joyce Molyneux (The Carved Angel) in Dartmouth.

So the Trelough (pronounced tra-loo) duck has arrived. And it is a phenomenon of our times, having flown into our consciousness during the space of five brief years.

So what exactly is a Trelough duck? It's quite a large bird, with a higher proportion of lean meat to carcass than the common British bird (an Aylesbury or Pekin cross, basically a fast-growing, fatty, white bird). The silky eating quality of the Trelough is superb. A wafer thin slice of breast is so tender when cooked, that it will break up with only the pressure of tongue against the roof of the mouth.

The emergence of the Trelough duck is a curious and inspirational tale. Barry Clark is not by training a poultry farmer but an accountant. As a Francophile, his penchant for good food and good wine has led him to spend most of his holidays for the last 20 years dining his way across France.

While on one of these holidays, he was supping a good claret with a juicy magret de canard, when a thought struck him forcibly: "I can see why we can't make claret like this in England, but surely there's no reason why can't we breed ducks like this?"

Barry had recently sold his accountancy business in Bristol in order to pursue his hobby, breeding chickens. He now decided to try his luck with breeding ducks. He set out to research the subject thoroughly.

In France there are four main breeds of duck; Nantes, Chalons, Barbary and Rouen. Barbary ducks are big, tough textured, gamey. The Chalons duck is small, compact, less gamey. The Nantes is a bland bird. The Rouen duck has, in Barry's opinion, the best flavour. It is the one used for the classic pressed duck dish which is the speciality of Paris's oldest restaurant La Tour d'Argent.

With the help of a French duck farmer, and summoning up the expertise he had already gained with chickens, Barry experimented with a Rouen duck, crossing birds to get a faster-maturing, leaner duck.

By 1991 he had achieved the duck he wanted, and now he farms the breeding stock himself, selling on the day-old ducklings to other farmers to grow. He requires them to feed the ducks with his own formulation, a mixture of wheat, barley and maize. He doesn't trust the commercial feed merchants; he doesn't know what they put in their feeds, and they won't tell him. But he can hazard a guess: by-products of this and that, biscuits, processed offal, he says. "Feathers," he says. "They are 75 per cent protein." As a matter of principle his aristocratiic birds are spared the horrors of modern intensive farming, such as animal proteins in the feeds, hormones, growth promoters, antibiotics.

Feed is only one aspect of his careful husbandry. Whereas the average British duck is killed at 47 days, the Trelough ducks grow on for another six to 10 weeks to achieve their stature. (Not longer, because beyond this time, fat starts to build up). The ducks are dry-plucked, and hung for four to seven days to develop flavour and tenderness.

Barry takes me through a walled garden into the orchard. His business card points out, rather eccentrically, that his ducks are "raised in orchards of rare apple trees". Is this neccessary to achieve their unique flavor then, like pigs feeding on beechnuts and acorns?

No. But his happy, brown ducks and handsome, green-necked drakes do indeed strut their stuff in an orchard of rare apples. A Herefordshire apple expert, Stan Baldock, made the suggestion, after noticing Barry already had a very rare Catshead apple (this is a large, old cooker supposed to have been enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I). Mr Baldock had been called in to advise after the 1987 storm had torn through the national apple collection in Brogdale, Kent. He was looking for homes for cuttings of some of the uniquely rare apples, and asked Barry to be guardian of some 25 curiosities such as the Hereford Beefing, American Mother, Lady's Delight, Fair Maid of Taunton and Winter Banana (a long-keeping yellow apple.)

Barry Clark is 46, married, and the father of a 16-month old son who enjoys the kind of childhood Barry himself had longed for. Barry's father, an engineer, was a farmer manque, and used to take the family for holidays to a farm in Staffordshire. By his 20s Barry had established a pattern of swimming against the flow, taking long winter lets on country cottages in Devon and Dorset.

At the age of 24, Barry Clark had been a successful accountant based in London, heading up a Guinness Peat subsidiary. He later moved to Bristol to run his own consultancy, but - following his urge to get deeper into the countryside - found himself buying a country rectory a gruelling 60 miles from Bristol.

The chore of commuting, making a daily round trip of 120 miles, was just the kind of life he'd been trying to escape and in the 1980s he chucked it in to pursue his breeding hobby. "It coincided with projected EC legislation which frightened off a lot of small poultry keepers. Duck-breeding wasn't going to be suitable as a part-time hobby, but by this time I was hooked. I was enjoying it and people were buying the ducks. There's nothing like praise from professionals to stimulate you." He has grown steadily and recently, a supermarket did indeed beat a path to his door. "My bank manager's eyes lit up. I thought about it. You would have to expand rapidly. It could be a short life and a merry one." To the dismay of his bank, he said no.

Among the ducks, I noticed, there also roamed some very handsome looking chickens. It may not be long, it seems, before the reputation of the Trelough duck (named after his house) is joined by the Devereux chicken (named after the parish).

He said he'd just completed a breeding programme in which he'd narrowed his chicken crosses down to two choices. He was working to similar principles to those which dictated his success with the ducks. Compared with the agri-business broiler chicken, killed after 42 days, these birds are designed to grow on for another 80 to 100 days, to be dry plucked, and then hung in the same way.

He's decided to go with the smaller of the two breeds of birds. The larger ones will live on as a small flock which is already known as Henry's chickens, his son's pets. I hope Henry can't count. Barry gave me one to take home, a six-pound beauty. Devereux Mark One cooked to perfection. We've always envied the French their Bresse chickens, Poulets de Bresse. Why did we never think we could we breed similar tasty birds?

The Trelough duck isn't cheap, but there's no waste. "The Chinese buy the ducks' webbed feet," says Barry. "They steam them in sealed pots for eight to 12 bours until they are gelatinous." He didnt think it was strange, though he was bemused when he got an order from Hong Kong for 30,000 ducks' tongues."I had to say no. It was too fiddly."

The very special thing about a Trelough duck is that each and every morsel of the bird is equally tasty. Bruno Loubet, of L'Odeon, does a luxurious dish he calls "Delices de Sud-Ouest"; it includes a slice of duck "ham" (from the breast which has been air-dried), a tartare of duck (the chopped, rare meat), rillettes (meat from the legs which have been cooked in duck fat like a confit), and a terrine of duck's foie gras (the liver). Loubet serves this with haricots verts, pickled wild mushrooms and a sweet wine jelly.

The dish below is served at Markwick's in Bristol. Earthy and sweet flavours provide the perfect setting for the naturalness of the duck, says Stephen Markwick.

BREAST OF TRELOUGH DUCK WITH PUY LENTILS, LARDONS AND SAUTERNES SAUCE

Serves 4

4 breasts of Trelough or Barbary ducks

75-125ml/3-4fl oz Sauternes

300ml/1/2 pint duck stock

25g/1oz butter, to finish

75g/3oz Puy lentils

15g/1/2oz butter

2-3 shallots, finely chopped

50-75g/2-3oz smoked streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into lardons

2 sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

For the garnish:

12 shallots, roasted

50-75g/2-3oz wild mushrooms, lightly sauteed in butter

Place the lentils in a saucepan with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, then strain. Cover with fresh water, bring to the boil again and simmer until almost cooked (about 10 minutes, depending on the age of the lentils). Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large pan, add the shallots, lardons, thyme and bay leaves and cook until the shallots are softened but not coloured. Add the lentils and, if necessary, a little of the duck stock to moisten. Continue cooking until tender, then taste and adjust the seasoning.

Season the duck breasts and fry, skin side down, in a dry pan at a medium to low heat until the fat runs and the skin is crispy. Pour off the fat as it is produced. Turn the breasts and briefly cook the other side. Remove, season again and set aside to rest in a warm place.

To make the sauce, deglaze the pan with a little Sauternes, and reduce to about one tablespoon. Add the duck stock and reduce again to about 125ml/4fl oz. Beat in the butter to finish.

To serve, carve the duck breasts, place the lentils in the centre of four heated plates, arrange the duck on top of the lentils, pour the sauce around. Add roasted shallots and wild mushrooms to garnish.

! The Trelough duck (pounds 2 50 per pound) and the Devereux chicken (pounds 2 10 per lb) are both available by mail order from the Hereford Duck Company, Trelough House, Wormbridge, Hereford HR2 9DH. Tel: 01981 570767 !

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