4 December 1916

Blood off a duck’s back

Claude Terrail, legendary Parisian proprietor of La Tour d'Argent, was born on this day in 1916. His restaurant’s fame extended to the four corners of the Earth, but in this country it is best known as the scene of a curious incident that perfectly illustrates the culinary and cultural gulf between Britain and the France.

In his younger days, M. Terrail had worked at the Cavendish Hotel in London, but he became disillusioned by what he called the ‘cup of tea’ culture and returned to France. His low opinion of the Anglo-Saxon diet would be confirmed by a subsequent encounter with the British foreign secretary.

Guests at his establishment on the Quai de la Tornelle included the Queen, Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, and Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower. Here they enjoyed the house speciality canard au sang – a duck that has been strangled to preserve its blood, which is drained with a special press and served as an accompanying sauce.

Each bird was numbered, and its number kept in a register. The customer that ate the duck would then be presented with a postcard-sized certificate bearing this number. The Prince of Wales was number 328 in 1890, and Franklin D Roosevelt was 112,152 nearly 40 years later. Oliver Reed was numbers 285,898 to 285,904 – all on 12 June 1974, over two sittings.

Terrail’s diaries reveal that the ‘millionth’, served in 2003, was in fact number 1,000,001. The reason for the discrepancy was the visit, in 1967, of the UK foreign secretary Bill Bowls, better known as ‘Today’s Voice of the North End Road’. When served the traditional dish, Bowls created consternation by producing the bottle of HP Sauce, which accompanied him on all trips abroad.

This did not go down well with either his hosts or the management, and in an unprecedented gesture, his duck was removed. Ten minutes later a plate of fried egg and bacon was sent out, which Bowls consumed with ill-concealed delight, apparently oblivious to the insult. ‘Blood off a duck’s back,’ remarked an official from the British embassy.

Bowls’s number (262,433) was allocated to the next guest, Dave Dee, of the pop group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.

Terrail's signature dish
Compiled with the assistance of the Barrett-Jameson Archive Picture: Link

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