Theodore Dalrymple

My goose was cooked — and it wasn’t very good

What's so good about these indigestible birds?

My goose was cooked — and it wasn’t very good
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Unlike Wagner’s music, which is better than it sounds, roast goose is less good than it sounds. For a reason that I have not been able quite to fathom, it is really delicious only in Germany. Or so I, at any rate, have found.

Whether this is because the Germans cook it better, or whether it is because it is a dish that is appropriate to the country, I am not sure. Perhaps you need to be near dense and dark pine forests, with clearings for witches and wicked stepmothers who either devour small children or send them out to find strawberries in the snow, to appreciate the comforts of roast goose.

Yet such is the theoretical allure of this bird that for a number of years I have been reluctant to contemplate the roasting of any other for our traditional and compulsive (if not compulsory) Christmas overindulgence. After all, the connotation of the word turkey, that is to say of dismal failure, seems to me to be entirely appropriate. Roast turkey is to cuisine what chipboard is to Chippendale. But roast goose was still a deceiver ever.

Now if goose were really so good, why is it that do we not eat it at other times of year? We are not very keen these days on self-denying ordinances, so the idea that we save up something delicious just for a single glorious treat once a year isn’t very plausible. If something is good we want it all the time, in and out of season, and are prepared to import it at the greatest expense from Ultima Thule if need be. So why does goose so rarely appear on menus, other than in the slightly modified form of foie gras? I do not think its size can explain everything. If it were really so splendid, we could cook half, a quarter or even an eighth of a goose. The fact that we don’t eat goose all the time, or even more than once a year, tells us, or ought to tell us, something.

However, I disregard these sceptical and dissenting thoughts each year, putting them to the back of my mind, which oddly enough feels as though it really is located at the back of my head, somewhere in my occipital lobe. I take no notice of the small, mocking voice that worms its way forward and tells me it, the goose, will be no good, it will be dry and stringy despite all the fat it exudes, and that duck or even chicken would have been better. No, I tell myself, as a man whistling in the dark, this time the goose will be delicious.

The first and most serious problem with roasting a goose is the fat. There is so much of it that normal dishes cannot contain it all, and one has repeatedly to empty the fat into various containers. And while goose fat has long been thought by grandmothers to have medicinal and preventive properties when rubbed into the chest, and is indeed excellent and perhaps even incomparable for roasting potatoes, yet there is far more of it than you can possibly want or use in a year. You put several bowls of it in the fridge, and then about three weeks later you throw it away. In this respect it is rather like Edward Lear’s recipe for amblongus pie, according to which a great deal of effort goes into the preparation of something that is so disgusting that it is ejected though the window.

Goose fat does not keep to itself, either. Goose fat vapour (or, I suppose it would be more scientific to say, droplets) soon spreads through the whole house, which begins to smells like a vast roast goose, and remains roasted for a few days thereafter. The size of the house makes hardly any difference; I have roasted geese in large and small houses, but the effect is the same. One goose perfumes all.

The greasiness of goose has to be counteracted with apples, red cabbage and the like, but there is no escaping the un-pleasantness of the washing-up afterwards. Mere soap and hot water are powerless against the insidious invasion of goose fat. And it is not even as if the goose was so delicious that it was worth all that it brought with it. The meat of goose tends to be dense and not easily digestible. It seems to sink directly into special receptacles in the thighs, where it settles like a lead weight and saps the will to movement for at least two days.

My French nephew was with us the first year I cooked goose. He ate it with the undiscriminating voracity natural to adolescence, but in the middle of the night his grandmother roused us to say that he had terrible stomach ache. We found him groaning in his bed and when we offered to examine him, he said, ‘I want a proper doctor, not you.’ In my time in practice I had been on the receiving end of far worse insults than this, and I told him that no such doctor was available, this being England and not France, and that I was better than nothing. Reluctantly, he let me examine him. In the end, my diagnosis was that he was establishing an excuse not to do the homework the following day that he had put off ever since he arrived. On the other hand, there is no denying the indigestibility of goose.

Wild goose is different from the domestic variety. It can be cooked without olfactory detriment to the whole house, and is pleasantly gamey. However, while you can shoot wild goose, you are not allowed to sell it, and therefore to buy it. The difficulty is in obtaining it. Wild geese are bad-tempered creatures, much disliked by farmers, one of whom informed me that a single wild goose can eat as much in a day as a cow — or perhaps it was a sheep, I can’t remember now. Anyway, eating like a bird is not the phrase for a goose’s appetite, and farmers approve of their destruction.

For all that, wild goose is entirely lean: it is to its domesticated brethren what an Italian child is, say, to a British one. Its skin is not as tempting as that of domestic goose, but on the other hand you do not feel guilt at having consumed so much cholesterol afterwards, and thus at having sinned against your own health (the nearest most people come nowadays to a sense of sin). It is altogether a healthier, and therefore more moral, bird. Its disadvantage for the squeamish is that it comes with both feathers and innards which have not been thoughtfully whittled down to those useful for making stock.

My observations on the disadvantages of goose as a Christmas bird have been confirmed by others. I am now cured of my illusion. This year, I will not be cooking my goose.