Over the past 10 years, the skill level of ambitious domestic cooks has increased hugely. Inspired by Masterchef and other cookery programmes, many adventurous home cooks now have access to the secrets of Michelin starred-kitchens thanks to coffee table books produced by big name chefs. Equipment and ingredients once reserved for restaurant kitchens (siphons, immersion circulators, 'molecular' ingredients) are now available to anyone from online retailers such as souschef.co.uk, and so all manner of foams, dusts, gels, and powders have now started to appear on plates at fancy dinner parties. There is edible soil, liberal sprinklings of ash, salt-baked this and hay-smoked that. We've come along way since the ubiquitous boeuf bourguignon of 1970s dinner parties.
Despite the increased access to information and equipment, there are still thankfully many dishes that can never be done justice by a home cook. Anyone attempting to fillet a fugu to serve to guests at a dinner party is quite clearly insane. You will never nail an authentic tikka without a tandoor oven and Peking duck is best left to those who have the time and knowledge to produce perfectly lacquered poultry. I know this, because I have tried to make it and it nearly led to a nervous breakdown. You can read about it on my first blog here.
For the uninitiated, those whose only experience of duck and pancakes is a quarter duck from the local chinese takeaway, authentic Peking Duck is one of the most technically challenging yet sumptuously rewarding dishes of global cuisine. Aromatic Crispy Duck, as sold by so many average Chinese restaurants and takeaways, is rarely crispy and the only aroma it carries is one of self-loathing and misery. The duck meat, shredded into a stringy fibrous pile of chewy greyness, has no succulence. The skin is flabby and unpalatable. The only way to drown the flavour is by piling on the plum sauce. No, for the real Chinese duck and pancake experience you have to go for classic Peking Duck, with skin so bronzed and shiny it reflects the lights of the restaurant and meat so juicy you can't help but let it dribble down your chin.
I have been lucky enough to eat Peking Duck in some pretty amazing places, in hotels in Hong Kong and in restaurants in the Chinatowns of London and Sydney. One of the best I've experienced was at China Tang at the Dorchester, but nothing can top eating Peking Duck in the Chinese capital itself, at the famous Beijing Da Dong restaurant. It was with great pleasure then, that I accepted an invitation to a Peking (or in this case Cantonese) Duck demonstration given by former Masterchef finalist Larkin Cen at his new restaurant Cen at Celtic Manor.
Celtic Manor lies just over the bridge near Newport in Wales, and is well known as a golfing resort and conference venue. As a gastronomic destination, it wasn't really on my radar, so I was surprised to find out it has six restaurants including Epicure by Richard Davies, a fine dining restaurant gunning for Michelin stars, Steak-On-Six which does what it says on the tin, and Larkin Cen's eponymous modern asian joint.
Larkin demonstrated the various stages in the preparation of his signature duck dish, from ladling hot water over the skin to filling it's belly with aromatics then sewing it up to make sure no flavour escapes while the duck is roasting, hanging by it's neck. This technique itself makes it impossible to recreate at home - who has an oven big enough to hang a full size duck by it's neck?!
Larkin carved the duck with ease, and although at Cen the chefs don't do the honours at the table side as they do in China, there was clearly a method in ensuring each portion was the same. It is said that the best Chinese chefs can get 120 pieces out of a single duck but the duck at Cen is cut a bit thicker which does make it a bit trickier to eat in a pancake. Nevertheless, the flavour was great, the meat moist and the skin crisp.
If you are looking for modern pan-Asian cuisine, Cen is worth a visit. The duck is not cheap, but when you know the work that goes into preparing it, it does see more reasonable. The rest of the menu is inventive and there are some cracking desserts too.
Cen at Celtic Manor, Coldra Woods, The Usk Valley, Newport NP18 1HQ