With Christmas barely eight weeks away, and Thanksgiving just around the corner for my American brethren, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk turkeys, not least because I spent yesterday on a genuine working turkey farm just south of Cambridge (OK, it’s a tenuous segway and I know Christmas is actually a while away but I wanted to get it written down while it was all still fresh in my mind, plus I got some cool pictures that I wanted to show you).
I can now say from extensive empirical research through close proximity that turkeys are big birds and when there are several hundred of them staring down at you, it can all too easily feel a little bit Hitchcock for comfort (although I think the movie would have taken on a slightly more comedic slapstick feel had turkeys been the vengeful flock in question).
They are also fiendishly ugly with odd folds of skin that appear to be taking over their distinctly reptilian features and a general look of permanent annoyance, much like a Daily Mail reader glancing over a story about how Jonathon Ross’s salary has caused the rise/fall/stagnation of house prices or other such nonsense (if you aren’t familiar with The Daily Mail, think National Enquirer, only with a more questionable ethics and less concern for fact or journalistic integrity).
But I’ve never been one to judge books by their covers or turkeys by their wattles for that matter and despite their unattractive exterior they are friendly and placid birds that live comfortably in large groups.
I should say from the off that the farm I went to was not an intensive battery operation where the young chicks are fed a horrific cocktail of hormones, additives, drugs and growth promoters in order to fatten them up in little over three months. This was very much a free-range operation where the birds had access to locally sourced feed and as much sunlight as they wanted. They were free to spend all day running their little claws off, should they so wish. The lack of nasties in their diet means that it takes them twice as long to reach maturity but the result is a much tastier bird with a far superior texture, a world away from the dried out examples that blight so many Christmases.
The bird itself is native to Mexico and the eastern United States and although there is no historical evidence that the early Pilgrim Fathers ate one in their first Thanksgiving dinner, by the 19th century the tradition had been galvanized. Now a roasted (or deep fried (!?)) turkey is as much a part of the day as pumpkin pie and the NFL. Over 250 million are bred for the table each year and 20 per cent of those are consumed on a single day. It is not known how many people actually like turkey and how many eat it because they have to. A bit like a Brussels sprout.
Those which I met yesterday at the Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop were a rare breed called Kelly Bronze favoured and bred for a more traditional flavour and texture and a favourite of self-proclaimed domestic goddess Nigella Lawson. Personally, I think she sits somewhere on the annoyance scale between ‘patronising’ and ‘odious’ but she seems to know her stuff so I might take her advice on this one. As long as she ties her bloody hair back when she cooks it. Those luscious L’oreal locks are all well and good but not when extracting one from the depths of your throat.
So, in summary, what have we learnt? Turkeys originally resided across the pond, they are tasty enough to warrant an annual eating and don’t let Nigella Lawson cook you a soufflé.
Joking aside, when hunting out your turkey there are a few key words to look out for and a number of tips I can now offer you, having spoken to someone who really knows that they are talking about. Look for the words ‘slow-maturing’ or ‘rare-breed’. Try to buy one that hasn’t had to travel too far and has managed to see at least a semblance of daylight. The more they’ve run around and the less they’ve been pumped full of chemicals like some gross futuristic nightmare, the tastier they will be. In short, apply the same rules when buying your turkey as you would any other meat. If you’re only going to eat it once a year, might as well make it a good one, no?