Food & Drink: Full Marx for the duck soup

OLD CHINESE proverb say, and I do not believe the proverb exists: 'You're not a man if you can't reach the Great Wall, and you're a fool if you haven't tasted Peking roast duck.' At huge expense I managed to prove my manhood. I reached the Wall. I did not climb it, walk it, commune with it, but I did reach it; and if I did not stay longer, it was because my cicerone for the day had arranged a Peking roast duck lunch. As Chinese meals take place at odd (for the Westerner) times, that meant reaching an outlying district of Peking by 11am. (Dinner engagements are at four, so be warned.) I knew it would take at least an hour to reach our destination.

But I am no fool and I had my duck and convinced myself that my journey was not in vain. For a variety of reasons, the duck I ate in Peking was radically different from any I have eaten elsewhere.

The traditional place to eat duck in Peking is the 130-year-old Quanjude restaurant, in the heart of the city. Due to the pressure of tourism, which required updating of its premises, Quanjude itself was closed (to reopen at the end of the year with a capacity of 1,600), but fortunately it had already spawned two branches. It was to the Haidan branch, near the university, that we repaired, where the manager and his staff had laid on a traditional duck lunch for us in a private room.

Let me start, then, with the most obvious difference between eating roast duck in Britain and eating it in Peking, and this is that in China you eat the whole duck - and when I say whole, I mean every single part of it, inner and outer, head to tail, backbone to webbed feet - and not just the apparently succulent bits. I do not pretend to have caught the whole of the menu, but here is a rough list of what we ate: mustard duck webfoot, salted duck livers, liver and gizzard stew, fried duck heart, cold duck tongues. (And this was before the piece de resistance itself.)

Now, to my knowledge, a duck has but one liver, one heart, the usual gizzards, a single tongue, two feet and so on. So how did we manage to make a meal before a meal? The answer is twofold: first that the Chinese, used to wasting nothing, can make a little go an awfully long way, and that any speciality of this sort is 'completed' with obscure vegetables or renderings of other unmentionable parts of the duck; and second, that there must be some diners who do not get the full treatment, thus providing for those of us doing it the traditional way. You will want to know, were these good? The answer is: excellent.

The main course, the duck itself, arranged on plates with crossed legs to indicate that we were indeed eating the whole duck, was brought to the table and carved before us, with a deftness I associate with long tradition. As you know, one eats it by stuffing the meat into pancakes, having first covered the meat with the traditional paste made of sugar, sweet bean paste, sesame oil and water, and adding sliced spring onions.

The flavour of the duck eaten in Peking is considerably different from what I have eaten elsewhere. Obviously, the ducks (the white Peking duck) themselves (which are raised on special farms, on a feed of grain) are distinctive. The duck is slaughtered at between three and four months.

Brought to the restaurant, it is half-filled with water, plugged and then put into a brick oven, where it hangs on hooks in vast rows, and is roasted to a golden brown while the inside is steamed by the evaporating water. Here, the most important difference is that the ovens are wood-fired: not just with any old wood, but with wood from the ju-jube, a pear or apricot. The flavour is as distinctive as using hickory wood for barbecuing.

The conclusion of the meal - the conclusion of almost every meal in China - was duck soup. And I have to say I have never eaten finer soup than the duck soup I ate in Peking: delicate in flavour, refined in the blending of ingredients (thin-sliced winter melon, ginger, scallions, Shao Hsing wine) and utterly fragrant.

If you want to try roasting a Peking duck yourself, the secret lies in the sequence of the cooking. Place the duck, breast down, on a rack in a large roasting dish for 20 minutes at 375-400F/185-200C/gas 6-7; turn and roast breast meat for another 20 minutes; remove duck and rack from oven and place in a large bain-marie; return to the oven and bake, turning once, for another 20 minutes.

For the 'pancakes', make a dough with flour and water, soft enough to be worked with a wooden spoon but not sticky. Knead for 5 minutes, cover with a damp cloth and leave for 20 minutes. Roll into a long sausage and cut into 12 pieces; flatten each slice, then roll out until thin. Heat a pan thoroughly and cook on each side until lightly flecked. This takes about 45 seconds. Remove, fold into triangles and wrap in cloth until needed.

No ju-jube wood? Worry not. This will work with any duck, suit any stomach and requires no visit to the Great Wall.

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