There won’t be any wild turkeys eaten in Britain this Christmas.
There won’t be any wild turkeys eaten in Britain this Christmas. However, a few of these birds, which are indigenous to north and central America, are being reared in south-west England. It is possible that one or two dark-plumaged turkeys may be seen in flight over Salisbury Plain or the hills of Devon, though no one is yet treating them as game birds, which they are in the USA. In the eastern states, in Texas and New Mexico, the male birds are shot — when strutting about they have beautifully fanned tails — and no doubt their gamey taste was enjoyed at a few tables in celebration of Thanksgiving last week.
The English turkey nearest in flavour to the wild American bird is the Norfolk Black which tastes, so I am told, rather like pheasant. All domestic strains should be treated as game in the sense that they should be hung for about ten days after being plucked and before they are drawn. The flavour will be improved, too, if the turkey is hand-plucked (commercial machine plucking involves immersing the bird in water, which is likely to give the flesh an insipid taste).
A lot of nonsense, I believe, is attached to the term ‘bronze’ turkey, which always commands a higher price and is supposed to be the best you can buy. But it depends how the bronze bird has been treated before it reaches the customer. If it has been reared in cramped conditions, fed on a diet of growth promoters and soya protein, then machine-plucked and drawn without being hung, it certainly won’t be worth paying the £5 or more per pound which will be charged this year for bronze turkeys. Bronze or white, the important thing is to be satisfied that the turkey comes from a good source, where it has been properly fed and cared for, before and after death. (Though I hesitate to mention it, my son Kim raises outstanding turkeys on his farm in south Cornwall — broad-breasted whites, fed partly on barley, hand-plucked and hung for up to two weeks; 01326 340484.)
When it comes to cooking the bird, I bear in mind the advice from my late mother-in-law, that no turkey needs more than two and a half to three hours in the oven. Some may argue that the legs should be cooked separately from the breast, because a large turkey cooked whole will either have perfectly cooked legs and an overcooked breast or a correctly cooked breast and undercooked legs. True, if the breast meat crumbles when carved, it is hardly worth eating; but I have never had this problem when roasting a turkey in my trusty Aga.
It helps, of course, if you cram some butter under the skin and baste the bird frequently during cooking. Gordon Ramsay recommends mixing the butter with chopped sage and lemon zest and using a piping bag to press it under the skin. Jamie Oliver reckons that if you put a stuffing between the skin and the breast, rather than in the cavity of the bird, then the breast meat will cook more slowly and be ready at the same time as the legs. His stuffing mixture includes bacon, minced pork, garlic, apricot, nutmeg and breadcrumbs, but it is quite enjoyable to play around with different combinations of meat, fruit, herbs and nuts.
Prunes, chestnuts, celery and rosemary are well worth putting together in one end of the turkey, and for the other I am very partial to a stuffing made with apple, sage, black pudding and the bird’s liver. The stuffings can of course be cooked separately, in which case it is a good idea, helping to give flavour to the bird, to put some halved lemons or oranges, herbs and seasoning inside the body.
Thinking about cold turkey (the continuation of the Christmas feast, not the withdrawal), I am already drooling over the prospect of the jellied juices in the dish, spooned over slices of cold meat with cranberry sauce, mostarda di Cremona or one of the walnuts which I pickled in the summer. For left-over turkey dishes, the internet suggests several unappealing ideas, notable only for their alliteration: turkey tortillas, tacos, tagliatelle, tagine. There is even one called, oxymoronically, turkey shepherd’s pie.
I would rather stick with my old favourites — turkey burgers and turkey croquettes. For the burgers you can mix a variety of things with the minced breast — sausage meat, smoked bacon, garlic, spring onions, thyme, grain mustard, Worcester sauce, mango chutney. For the croquettes the meat, breast and leg, should be minced with onion and an egg or two, then formed into sausage shapes, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Goes very well with leeks in a white sauce. Large slices of the cooked breast may also be lightly grilled with a spread of pesto sauce and thin slices of Gruyère cheese. On Christmas day, however, my preference is for the leg meat, and the parson’s nose, with red cabbage and a bucket of bread sauce.
Simon Courtauld’s second collection of columns, Food for Thought: Fish and Feather, is published by Think Books (£9.99).