When I arrived at Cirrus Hill Farm, I was greeted by turkeys. A rafter of white-feathered birds ran up to the car, curious to see who was inside. The unusual welcoming committee was the first sign that things were different on this small, Ontario farm. My two young daughters had come with me to the interview and the three of us cautiously climbed out of the car. I, for one, was nervous the birds would peck at our legs, but they were friendly and followed us to the door of the farmhouse.
We'd come to see the ducks that lay the eggs we'd been enjoying, but there was more to this place than just ducks. JoAnn McCall, who runs the farm, raises a variety of heirloom waterfowl as well as the turkeys and some chickens. She sells their young to other farms in Canada and the United States—and sells extra duck eggs on the side for people like me to eat. Her business card reads: "Eat them to preserve them." By keeping her waterfowl, JoAnn hopes to inspire other small scale farmers in North America to raise these birds too. She wants to bring back the duck.
"The folks who have been raised on duck eggs get all misty-eyed," JoAnn said.
"Water fowl are undervalued," she said as she showed us around the farmyard where the ducks live. While I had pictured a network of ponds where ducks could frolic, JoAnn's birds spend their days pecking at the grass around the farm, searching for grubs and snails and other invertebrates to eat. Because of this high-protein diet, truly free-range ducks like these require less than half the grain a chicken needs to reach a finished slaughter weight of about five pounds. When they want water, the ducks are happy to paddle about in the children's wading pools she has filled with a hose; they also wade in a puddle near the barn. At night, when predators like foxes and coyotes come out, she corrals the birds in an animal-proof shelter. "It couldn't be easier," JoAnn said. "Even your children could take care of them."
In fact, she believes that anyone practicing sustainable agriculture should raise ducks. "Every farm has areas that are not in active production. You've got lawns, culverts, you've got land that isn't suitable for other types of agriculture. Ducks are really good at finding all sorts of food in these things," she said.
The breed she raises is called Saxony and was developed in England and Germany. They are dual-purpose birds, good for turning into a lovely roasted dinner as well as for laying. She sells the slaughtered birds to a chef in Toronto, and the eggs are offered at the 100-Mile Store in the nearby town of Meaford. Although duck meat is prized by many, ducks eggs aren't as popular. Some people don't like the idea of eating the eggs of a bird other than the chicken. But those who know how delicious a duck egg can be can't get enough of them.
In my city, duck eggs are beginning to show up on menus in restaurants that focus on the local terroir. The other day I ate a salad with a lightly poached duck egg placed on top. It tasted different than a chicken egg; the yolk was bigger and creamier, less sulphurous. Baker Dawn Woodward of Evelyn's Crackers prizes duck eggs for their big yolks, which can be up to triple the size of chicken yolks. She suggests including these in any quiche or custard recipe for a richer, deeper taste. (Her young daughter also likes them boiled just enough so their yellows are soft but not set.)
"The folks who have been raised on duck eggs get all misty-eyed," JoAnn said. "In other traditions, in Asia and in Europe, they are still much appreciated." In the Philippines, for example, fertilized duck egg, called balut, is a delicacy. But even though these birds are indigenous to North America and people have been eating them for centuries, they are not part of our culinary tradition.
As we leave the farm, the turkeys come to say goodbye. My kids each take one of the many feathers blowing about, for keepsakes. The ducks quack loudly—we can hear them from across the yard. "They really are quite lovely," JoAnn said. And it's true. We'll be eating as many duck eggs as we can get our hands on.