This past summer, I spent six weeks discovering the Var, a beautiful region in the center of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the South of France. We rented a villa in a tiny village called Montfort-sur-Argens, surrounded by olive trees and lavender fields on a hill overlooking vineyards. Every few days, I grabbed my straw basket and drove to a marché, a farmers’ market, in one of the neighboring villages. I loved leisurely strolling through the maze of vendors lining the streets. I was constantly lured in by the tables stacked high with truffles, nougat, tapenades, pistous, olive oil, and, most of all, the miel (honey).
At home in Paris I always have a plastic squeezable jar of honey in the cupboard, ready for tea when my throat hurts. Before the markets of the Var, I never thought too much about the variety, or where it came from. However, the small glass jars at the farmers’ market filled with various shades of gold and amber were like little jewels to me. I learned that there are approximately 4,500 beekeepers in the region producing different types of honey, thanks to the region’s wide range of vegetation and species of flowers. I tasted flavors I never imagined existed: clementine honey, lavender honey, thyme honey, rosemary honey, chestnut honey, acacia honey, and buckwheat honey. Honey is serious business here—it even gets special attention with a museum and a yearly festival dedicated to the sweet nectar.
I, too, became obsessed. Every morning I slathered honey on buttered toast like the locals, folded it into crepes, added a spoonful to my yogurt, and mixed it into marinades or sauces. At restaurants I couldn’t pass up dishes made with rich honey sauces, especially when they were poured over magret de canard (duck breast), which became another infatuation of mine.
Like honey, falling for duck was a surprise, too. Before moving to France from America, I had never tasted it. The only time I even saw the bird was at fancy Chinese restaurants in the form of crispy Peking duck. In France, duck is not a rarity. It turns up at nearly every bistro, brasserie, and restaurant. A few years ago on a weeklong trip to Dordogne in southwest France, I finally gave in because I couldn’t escape the duck. Driving between towns and villages to explore, there were signs pointing toward the nearest duck farms. Restaurants and vendors proudly offered their finest duck delicacies, which I was hesitant to taste. I saw foie gras, duck paté, duck salads, duck hash, duck wings, fried duck, and duck tartare. After several days I couldn’t resist any longer. It was love at first bite, and I have never looked back.
Life abroad is all about discovery. This combination—seared duck breast drenched in warm wildflower honey—continues to be my current favorite, handily taking me dinner party by dinner party from summertime to deep into fall.
PAN-SEARED PROVENÇAL DUCK WITH HONEY SAUCE
1 duck breast (approximately 12 ounces/300 grams)
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup orange juice (no pulp)
3 tablespoons miel de fleur (wildflower honey)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Take the duck breast out of the fridge 30 minutes prior to cooking. Using a sharp knife, score the fat side of the duck diagonally in marks ½ an inch apart. Be careful not to cut into the meat. Then cut in the opposite direction as well, making a crosshatch pattern.
- Season the duck on both sides with herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper.
- When 30 minutes have passed, pour the canola oil into a large sauté pan and place on the stovetop over medium heat. When the pan is hot, place the duck breast in the center, skin side down, and lower the fire to medium-low. Let the meat cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the skin is a deep brown. Turn the breast over and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes until the meat is medium-rare. Transfer the duck to a cutting board.
- Pour off the rendered duck fat from the pan and return it to the fire. (I like to leave about a tablespoon of the fat in the pan for flavor and save the rest for cooking potatoes another day.)
- Pour in the orange juice and use a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Add the honey and continuously stir the sauce. Turn the heat up to medium high and let the sauce lightly boil and reduce to half.
- When the sauce starts to reduce, add the butter and return the duck breast to the pan. Tilt the pan towards you and ladle the sauce over the duck continuously for about 1 minute.
- Remove the duck from the pan to the cutting board, and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
- Plate the duck and pour the honey sauce over the meat. Serve with green beans and a carrot puree or mashed potatoes.
For the honey: Be sure to use a runny honey. Thick or creamy honeys will stick to the pan and burn. Miel de fleur (wildflower honey) is my favorite to cook with, but other honeys, such as an orange blossom or thyme honey, work very well with this duck recipe. If you live in France or are visiting, take a trip to La Maison du Miel, one of the oldest purveyors of honey in the country. In the U.S., I recommend skipping the fake honey at the supermarket and buying true wildflower honey online from specialty stores like Marshall’s Honey or at a local gourmet grocery store, such as a Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, or Le District in New York City.
For the duck: Duck might be more challenging to find, as it isn’t as popular outside of China and France. I recommend talking to the butcher at your local specialty store or ordering duck online from Maple Leaf Farms, D’Artagnan, or surprisingly enough, even Amazon.
Ajiri Aki is the coauthor of Where’s Karl? (Clarkson Potter, 2015) with Stacey Caldwell and recently launched MANNA Paris, a website for English-speaking mothers in Paris. You can follow her family’s travels and food explorations at @manna_paris.