Duck Apicius

Ever since I picked out a modern interpretation of an Apicius pork dish in Dom’s first ever Random Recipe challenge (and that was quite a while ago now) I’ve been playing around with some of the other recipes (I use the term loosely) in this text from ancient Rome. Since my Latin is a little rusty, I’ve lazily resorted to translations I’m afraid.

A brief QI style digression:
There are actually ten “books” in the Apicius writings that (sort of) add up to a complete treatise on cooking. The books are named in honour of Apicius, who was known for his love of fine food, but were actually compiled long after his death. And I think that’s more than enough facts for now.

You need a fair amount of imagination with some of the “recipes” in Apicius: there are few exact quantities given or methods described and some of the ingredients, such as the plant silphium or laser, no longer exist.  So I feel justified in bringing you a fairly free adaptation of an Apicius sauce for duck (or, as Apicius suggests, crane). The sauce might sound odd, but I promise you that it works. If you can’t lay your hands on any lovage, you could use a little finely chopped celery instead.
Duck Apicius
This is not an Apicius method of cooking duck. In fact, it’s the way I saw Paul Rankin cook duck breast on the TV around 1994 and I’ve used it ever since. This will serve 2.

2 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp coriander seeds
Small handful of pine nuts
1 tbsp fresh lovage leaves, chopped
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, chopped
1 tbsp dates, finely chopped
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 glass dry white wine
2 tsp runny honey
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 duck breasts, off the bone but with skin still on (I used Gressingham)

First prepare the sauce – in fact, you can do this an hour or two in advance. Lightly toast the cumin and coriander seeds with the pine nuts in a dry frying pan. Grind them quite finely in a pestle and mortar. Add the lovage, oregano and dates and pound these into the pine nut and seed mix together with a generous amount of pepper and a little salt. (You can pound as thoroughly as you like, but personally I prefer a little texture in the finished sauce.)

Stir in the olive oil and pour the mixture into a small dry pan. Heat until the mixture just begins to fry and then pour in the wine. Stir and allow the wine to reduce by about a half. Lower the heat and stir in the honey and mustard. Either keep the sauce warm or chill and reheat later.

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Trim any excess skin or sinewy bits off the duck breasts. Score the skin with a very sharp knife and season them all over with salt and pepper. Place the duck breasts skin side down in a dry frying pan: this needs to be one that can be placed in the oven. Place the pan on a moderate heat and cook the breasts for about 5 minutes until the skin is looking crisp. Pour off all but a little of the fat released by the duck and turn the duck breasts over. Cook on the flesh side for 1 minute until lightly coloured. Turn them back onto their skin side and place the pan into the oven. Let the duck breasts roast for 4 minutes (or 6 minutes if you like your duck less pink and 8 if you like it not really pink at all). Remove the duck breasts from the pan and let them rest for a few minutes, skin side up.

Serve the duck breast sliced or whole on a puddle of the reheated Apicius sauce. Simply cooked fresh veg is as good as anything else alongside it.


  1. Do you mean to use the celery leaves or the celery stalk?
    The meat is cooked so perfectly - looks amazing!

    1. Good question. I was actually thinking of the stalk but the leaves might be better. If you happen to grow any 'leaf celery' in the herb garden then that would probably be the very best substitute. Although lovage is possibly easier to grow than leaf celery in my slug-ridden herb garden.

  2. Ooh. Intriguing. I remember your first entry was quite left-field! I haven't cooked duck for years but I have to go interview some duck farmers soon and I'm hoping they give me some so I'll give this a go. Looks beautifully pink by the way. Excellent photo!

  3. Wow, this looks delicious! The skin looks crispy. The only time I remember having eaten duck was when I was a child. It was on top of this white, subtle sweet flat bun (kinda like the Chinese pork buns, I think it is the bun) but it was a flat circle with plum sauce and the duck on top of it.

    1. Duck with plum sauce is so delicious. It might be the way I first ate duck, too, but if you wander around south-west France at all (and I'd heartily recommend it), then you won't avoid duck for long. It's actually one of my favourite foods.

  4. Very interesting...I wonder it is legal to hunt crane, if one wanted to be really Roman. I also wonder if one would actually want to eat crane. It couldn't be as lovely as this duck.

    1. I really wouldn't recommend crane hunting - some species are endangered I believe. Crane remained popular as a dish through to the middle ages at least and I'm told that the American pioneers munched their way through quite a few cranes in the early days of the wild west. Personally, I'd stick to duck.

  5. Not bad at all! Looks juicy, tender and full of flavour. I'd love to learn more about cooking duck as my experience with it is very limited. It is such a great tasting meat though.

  6. I rarely cook duck but this has inspired me to get some. Great recipe and v interesting too.

  7. I ve never cooked duck but now I really want to! This looks delicious!!!

  8. Hi Phil...thanks for commenting on my blog. This recipe sounds wonderful...funnily enough I was toying with treating ourselves to duck breasts at the weekend...I didn't, but now am really tempted to do so for the bank holiday weekend...this would be a perfect treat...thanks for sharing...

    Thanks for the mini history lesson too...

  9. I don't eat or cook enough duck. This sounds brilliant, so many flavours but I bet the duck shines through.

  10. I will have to try this. My husband loves duck but I only have a handful of recipes for it. This is definitely worth a try. I am new to your blog, but I will be back. I really like the food and recipes you share with your readers. Have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  11. This looks wonderful and anything that has Lovage in it has my vote, as it is my favourite herb. I am also a BIG lover of duck too....a lovely recipe, and one that would make a great entry into the Herbs on Saturday event if you wish....
    PS: Beautiful photos too....


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