A Tale of Four Skins

Crispy, crackly, rich and flavourful—the lowly skin of a beast can be a wondrous delicacy.





The art of carving skin from a Peking duck at Sha Tin 18 in Hong Kong

Last Christmas dinner was prepared by my brother-in-law Ian Clemens, a banker and a chef of surprising enterprise and stamina. He began with torchon of foie gras, bolstering the sentiment that the fatted duck liver is the cocaine of cuisine. He followed with turkey. I don’t much like turkey: my sensitive ears curl up at the flatulence that rocks Canadian homes with seismic fury on December 25.

But this was an Island turkey roasted with considerable affection, and a good one as turkeys go. My chunk of bird arrived in a mantle of skin, golden-brown, as crisp as a potato chip, and mighty tasty. I tore into it with a crrrunch that turned heads at the table. Then I returned the rest to the serving platter and begged for more skin.

A few years ago, my wife and I spent a few days at Les Prés d’ Eugénie, the spa and restaurant complex owned by chef Michel Guerard, two hours south of Bordeaux. Guerard is the chef who created Lean Cuisine and is appalled by what the American food industry has done with it. Les Prés d’ Eugénie, a Rélais & Chateaux property, covers 16 hectares. It’s a theme park dedicated to sybaritism and set among lawns and palms and jaunty nymphs.

Guerard operates four restaurants. The main building, dating to 1862 and used as a Nazi headquarters during the Second World War, houses the main restaurant, where a brigade of 25 chefs toils in two separate kitchens. But we liked his Ferme Aux Grives, his “country” restaurant, better. We arrived to find a suckling pig turning golden-brown on a spit in the massive stone fireplace. The skin of this fantastical suckling pig was served in planks. How could the skin of a pig emerge so wondrous a delicacy?

Tojo’s, Vancouver’s famous Japanese restaurant, does a fabulous business in B.C. rolls. The secret of the B.C. roll is salmon skin crisped on the barbecue grill. This is a prime use of a west coast resource: B.C. is not exactly short of salmon skin.

Expertly scaled and with just enough fat for a crisp-and-soft consistency, salmon skin stands alone. I grill salmon fillets over charcoal, and as it cooks, pull the skin away well before it turns into a chip. The skin can be a tad acidic, but that’s the fatty omega-3 acids that are so good for us. And did you know salmon skin’s good for the dog? The oils, apparently, improve a pooch’s complexion.

The ritual of Peking duck ranks as one of the great, ancient, classical dishes of Middle Kingdom cooking. Nobody knows how to roast a duck like the Chinese, who have for centuries understood the harmony of fire, fat and flesh.

In Hong Kong’s New Territories—the buffer zone between the city and the People’s Republic—at Shatin 18, the restaurant in the Hyatt Sha Tin hotel, duck rules the roast. Chef Nelson Zou’s Peking duck is the best I’ve ever encountered, a five-course procession in which the bird’s skin is honoured as best bite. Such a skin—so crisp, so crackling, so fragrant, so flavourful. Little wonder the restaurant goes through 30 ducks a day.

My wife opts for a French treatment. She buys Brome Lake duck breasts at Thrifty Foods. She brines them in a solution of kosher salt, brown sugar and rosemary. She places them skin-side-down in a medium-hot pan until the fat is rendered and the heavenly skin turns crisp. Then she finishes them in the oven until the flesh is melting and pink under that crust of skin. Of all the skins of all the birds in all the world, duck is the champ.

I’m for skin, but not in every case: I ate an armadillo in Guatemala once; its skin was like breaking into a Brinks truck. There was zebra skin in Tanzania; I feared the stripes would get in my food traps. Yubiki is a salad made from cold, blotched fugu (pufferfish) skin served in Japan, and I wasn’t crazy about that, either.


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