When we had written about every square inch of Italy, we were ordered by our publisher to leave Umbria for southwest France, where there were several surprises, starting with the price of truffles. In Umbria’s Valnerina, where we lived, even impecunious travel writers could occasionally splurge on spaghetti al tartufo nero in a trattoria; in the Lot, even though we live a mere 45 minutes from the big truffle market in Lalbenque, they are a pricey indulgence reserved for times when someone else is paying.
What compensated for the paucity of truffles was the omnipresence of duck, and to a lesser extent goose. Fatted duck, to be precise, to make foie gras, and along with the foie gras come numerous duck by-products, most importantly the maigret, or breast (usually grilled like a steak), and the thighs (cuisses) and gizzards (gésiers), which are put up in jars or tins and slowly cooked in their own fat and preserved as confits de canard; the gizzards end up in a salade quercynoise with lettuce and walnut oil, and maybe some smoked duck breast or ham.
Even the duck carcasses, curiously known as demoiselles, are preserved, and barbecued in the summer by the locals at the ferme auberges, restaurants run by farm families—in the southwest, they’re nearly always on duck farms.
Jewish communities in Venice introduced a similar dish to the Veneto. Oca in onto (goose preserved in fat) is pretty much the same thing as confit d’oie; the onto of course, being a tasty substitute for forbidden lard in soups, sauces and other dishes. The Jews also make elaborate dishes such as frisinsal de tagiadele: tagliatelle cooked in a rich chicken stock, with goose salame or meatballs, or even shredded roast chicken, pine nuts and sultanas, all baked in the oven in the shape of a ring (more or less; recipes vary widely).
My own recipe that is much simpler, invented one day when there were four for dinner, but only two confits in the fridge. The solution: put them on pasta. Eccoci qua! Voilà!
Proportions are to your own taste but in general what you need for four servings are:
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
400 gr mushrooms, thickly sliced. Even better if you have shitakes or porcini
A few big spoonfuls of duck fat (remember this is the ‘other olive oil’ and good for you!)
Two duck confits
Big handful of parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
Truffle oil (if you want to be fancy)
A small carton of thick cream (roughly 20cl, or 6-7 fluid ounces)
Tagliatelle for four
If your confits are in a tin, open it and place on a low flame until you can extract the meat from the liquified fat. Take off the fatty skin and give it to the cat (if they are a French cat like our Brutus, they will insist on it!). Shred the meat from the bone, which is easiest done with your fingers, but really greasy. Half way through this, the phone will inevitably ring…
Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta, as the sauce takes about ten minutes.
Use some of the duck fat to sauté the garlic. Store the rest of the fat in the fridge in a sealed container to sauté potatoes.
When the garlic is soft, add the mushrooms and fry until soft. If they seem too dry, throw in a knob of butter.
Add the shredded confits to the mushrooms. Remember they they're already cooked so only need to be heated through; when warm, add the cream, then salt. Keep warm until the pasta is al dente. Toss in a few spoonfuls of the cream from the sauce, then top with the confits and mushrooms and a twist or two of the pepper mill, chopped parsley, and if you like, drizzle with truffle oil, to remind yourself of the good old days in Umbria.