If you think your traditional turkey is a dry, under-flavoured, over-rated bird, then you might want to change where you buy it, says Rachael Rowe
It’s that time of year when thoughts turn to plans for the festive season – and the food. For many people, a turkey is the centrepiece of a Christmas dinner. But what goes into rearing the best quality turkey? And how do you know yours will be good? Our local turkey farmers are gearing up for the busiest time of the year and spoke to us about their work.
Alban and Helen Harris are seventh-generation farmers at Brunsell Farm in Stourton Caundle. ‘I’ve been doing this all my life,’ says Alban, ‘I can remember Grandma on the farm. There’s a lot of heritage with this farm, and lots of things continue here, so the traditional ways of doing things affect the quality of the turkeys.
‘The turkey industry has been industrialised, and costs have had to be cut. However, we have stuck with our traditional methods. We feed the birds the best quality wheat, soya and cereal. And the whole process is carried out on the farm, so there is less stress to the turkey.’
That’s something that Mark Chilcott of Chilcott Turkeys in Owermoigne also emphasised when talking about quality. He has 30 years experience of producing turkeys. ‘Everything is done here on the farm from start to finish to monitor quality and reduce stress on the turkeys. We’re free range, and we have bronze turkeys. When our birds are slaughtered, they are hung whole-bodied so they mature and the flavour improves.’
Alban explained more about the difference between wet plucking and dry plucked turkeys. ‘With wet plucking, the birds are slaughtered and then scalded so the feathers can be removed faster. In mass turkey production, wet plucking can take five seconds to do. However, when you do that, the case is compromised, and the bird has to be refrigerated immediately. Here, after slaughter, all our birds are dry plucked by hand. It is intensive work to pluck a bird manually – usually 20 minutes. So that adds to the cost. We then hang the birds for ten days, so they mature on flavour and tenderise. Turkeys are a game bird, so they need a chance to mature before they are dressed. This is why some mass-produced turkeys are drier, because the meat hasn’t had a chance to tenderise. Also, most of our birds are hens which put down more fat, and that also adds to the flavour.’
Plumpy Whites and Roly Polys
Chicks arrive from June on the farms, and both farmers select from the best strains. The breeds have delightful-sounding names such as Plumpy Whites and Roly Polys (a bronze variety). While the Chilcotts have free ranging birds, Alban’s turkeys are raised in the barns where they have lots of room to stretch their wings and nestle on straw. ‘We’re very wary of risking bird flu by having them outdoors.’
But what about the cost?
Both Alban Harris and Mark Chilcott have experienced significant increases in the cost of quality food this year, which will inevitably affect prices. However, a turkey is a large and versatile bird; there is a lot people can do with leftovers to make it more cost-effective. Helen Harris advises: ‘With a fresh turkey, you can freeze the cold meat in portions and use it later in the year. Soups, curries, and pies are good for using leftovers, and you can freeze them, too. Some people buy a whole turkey from us and cut it in half. Then they eat half the bird at Christmas and freeze the other side for later in the year.’
Alban and Helen sell turkeys to 17 butchers locally. ‘Julian and Roger Else come here and pick out the turkeys they want.’ Chilcott Turkeys also supply several local butchers and sell at the farm gate.
So what is the customer looking for?
‘People want smaller turkeys,’ says Alban, ‘but are increasingly wanting only breast meat.
‘We need to be realistic on pricing because there is more work in jointing the turkeys. And with crowns, you need a bigger bird, so that affects the price.
‘Sometimes we bone roll ours. One year we bone rolled the turkey and had a piece of venison through the middle, which was really lovely.
I don’t advertise it too much because it’s so fiddly and everyone will want them! It’s one of the last things I do before Christmas, mainly for a few friends, and as I’m doing it, I think, “We’re there now. The turkeys have gone, the work is almost done, and it’s Christmas”.’