Now I’m sure I will ruffle more than a few feathers through writing about such an emotive subject, however I feel that I can no longer remain silent upon an issue which comes around to haunt me every single year.
That’s right good people; we have to talk about turkey, because there is a good reason behind the fact that we only serve it as a glorified main dish once per year. We have all had it, a dry tough old bird (nope, this isn’t even a mother joke), whose presence is at best tolerated and made edible only though lashings of gravy and cranberry sauce.
Despite trying a range of different birds (organic, expensive, crown only) prepared in a variety of manners and cooked in several different ovens, I have never had a good experience beyond “slightly less dry”. The place of turkey at my Christmas table has subsequently come into serious review over the past few years, especially as it is now easier than ever to source high quality game birds, responsibly reared poultry and other prize cuts of meat for the event.
It seems that my anti-turkey sentiment is shared amongst many others, a fact I discovered after a piece of entirely rigorous, and not pub conversation based, statistical research. Excitingly, many of my associates are revisiting pre-turkey Christmas traditions through serving goose or beef. It’s also interesting to note that the rise of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles has sparked a plethora of meat-free Christmas recipes, without a nut roast in sight!
Whilst the first live turkeys were brought to England by European explorers in the Americas in the 16th century, consumption of roast turkey at Christmas can be traced back to the upper and middle classes of Victorian Britain. During this period, the upper echelons of society seem to have viewed the still unusual bird as a luxury, whose large size made it suitable for large gatherings.
This class divide can be clearly seen in A Christmas Carol, where it is a goose, not a turkey that takes pride of place on poor Bob Cratchit’s table. However displaying a seemingly new found generosity of spirit (we won’t go into my conspiracy theories about his transformation here) Scrooge then pops along with a supposedly superior turkey. Though to me it seems like the goose was the real star of the show…
“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows”
Despite beginning as the food of the elites, by the mid twentieth century, turkey had come to replace traditional Christmas meats, such as goose, in popular consumption. However one can make a convincing argument that the meteoric rise of Turkey is not due to its superior taste. Rather it is the bird’s immense size and subsequently the sheer volume of meat that made it an increasingly attractive proposition to Christmas cooks. From a production point of view, the birds are also easy to rear, quick to put on weight and therefore relatively cheap to the end consumer.
So what are the other options?
Goose is a good starting point, as seen in the Cratchit’s feast. Last year I decided to try roasting one myself and found the meat to be wonderfully rich and dense with a lovely depth of flavour. Alongside a generous abundance of meat, you can also expect lashings of molten fat, given up freely by the roasting bird, perfect for crisp roast potatoes on and beyond the big day. To accompany, I recommend a side dish of red cabbage slow cooked in red wine and Christmas spices.
If your gathering is slightly more petite, duck would be a perfect goose replacement, especially for those who love crispy skin! There is also the humble chicken, which must not be overlooked: smothered in butter and fresh herbs, a perfectly roasted chicken can be elevated from simple Sunday fayre into a festive centrepiece.
If poultry does not fulfil your Christmas aspirations, I would look to a showstopper beef wellington or wing rib served rare, both of which are much more luxurious than a standard roasting joint. I personally also feel that something such as salmon en croute is worthy of consideration, as it really does have a sense of occasion about it.
Because after all, whether you are religious or not, celebrating the festive season is about sharing good food and having a reason to partake in all of the delicacies and naughty treats that otherwise would not make it to the table.
This is why I am so against serving anything other than the best on the day. I firmly believe that turkey is a second tier bird, chosen for size, rather than taste.
That is why this Christmas I urge you to consider your options, a goose, chicken, duck, capon or pheasant will make a marvelous and most importantly, delicious, Christmas centerpiece.
This article originally appeared in YOAF Issue 5