"You first parents of the human race...who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you have done for a truffled turkey?"
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)
The story goes that in 1526 William Strickland, a wealthy navigator, merchant and landowner dropped anchor into the Port of Bristol carrying six wild turkeys from the Americas. Up until this time all manner of beasts would grace a Christmas table; primarily peacocks, swans, the more flavoursome goose and the odd wild boar. A near instant success with ruling class Britain was secured due to turkeys’ formidable size and regal demeanor. Legend has it that Henry VIII was the first monarch to grace his table with a Christmas turkey. Never really taking off with British farmers, the turkey remained elite for another four hundred years until the dubious wonders of poultry farming mass production in the 1950’s. Victorian England began embracing the turkey ever more closely but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that this breasty gobbler became a British seasonal staple with all and sundry. When studying the history of festive traditions, Charles Dickens turns out to be the real Father Christmas. Much of what we consider to be hard and fast rituals for the holiday season were either birthed or documented in A Christmas Carol, seemingly set in stone evermore with ‘a prize turkey...the one as big as me’. Mrs. Beeton recites a vivid story where the farmers of Norfolk would walk their birds through warm, sticky tar and then sand. The oily tar would dry and form rubber boots with a sandy gripped bottom for added protection, thus allowing for the long walks of turkey flocks off to London for the Christmas markets.
And so to the farm. Pipers Farm produces a fabulous bronze turkey slowly matured as nature intended. Double the amount of time and effort has gone into producing these beauties than most other sources and the annual hand plucking of the birds brings together colourful members of the community in what has become more akin to a social event rather than a baneful chore. The day old chicks hatch in the third week of May and are kept in a warm barn for a month. Once the feathers have come on, it’s straight out to the cider orchard where they immediately take to grass. Cereals augment this green feeding and the little gobblers then feast on falling apples by the third week of June. The turkeys continue their orchard sojourn until the end of September, reaching full maturity. Most producers will have killed by the third or fourth month, but Peter Greig knows better. ‘Leaving them past the point of maturity lets flavour develop. This is what sets our birds apart.’ Add to this the unheard of three week hanging post kill, and you have a turkey unlike any I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaxing along to Christmas perfection. Think of it this way; to us chefs, reductions play a huge part in our cooking. The reducing of a stock to intensify the flavour, the numerous alcohol, fruit or meat reductions all hell bent on building a flavour or thickening a sauce. Hanging a beast for a prolonged period of time reduces the moisture content, thus intensifying the flavour that the farmer has lovingly built through time, care, environment and correct feed. Pipers have developed two ingenious methods to give choice and ease to the unlucky cook that ends up with the short end of the wishbone on that fattening festive day. The ‘Simplest Turkey’ is a complete no brainer. Legs and breast have been boned out, stuffed with an apricot and hazelnut stuffing, rolled and tied. Pipers own sausages wrapped in their sublime streaky bacon accompany, and a tub of turkey stock for your gravy making is tossed in for good measure. Seriously, one hour...one turkey dinner. For those of you wanting something more traditional, you can buy a whole boned, rolled and stuffed turkey that will take half the time of bone in, still gives you a birdy shape for the table but with the meat cooked more evenly than tackling the whole bone-in shebang. Of course, if these two tempting tricks can’t dissuade you, the whole bird can be purchased and prepared old school. But not if I have anything to say about it! You cannot, I repeat...you cannot properly cook a whole turkey on the bone. Can’t be done. Sure, brining for 10-12 hours helps, but it won't be perfect. The breasts will be overcooked before the legs are just right. It is always best to break big birds down, confit the legs or bone and stuff, even separately roast. And what of basting? Think about it. The skin of a bird is designed to keep things out. Basting is like an old wives’ tale; means nothing, does nothing. If anything, basting means you keep opening the oven door, hindering the cooking and crisping of the very skin you’re trying to get just right. Also, never stuff a whole bone-in turkey. It’ll take years to cook as your breasts become parchment. Make a beautiful stuffing separately and pour all those sexy, greasy resting juices from the bird into the stuffing and mix well. Yum.
So there you have it. What you trade for that impressive looking dead fowl centrepiece can be presented even more alluringly with platters of uniform sliced stuffed ballotines garnished with all the trimmings. Trust me, I’m a chef.
Happy stress free holidays and may the gods of gluttony smile upon your galliform digestion.
Ingredients for 2
250gm turkey breast
2 young parsnips
4 Brussel sprouts
3 Chestnuts, cross hatched
A few fried sage leaves
Chopped pumpkin pieces
Rapeseed oil & butter
1) Roast the parsnips and rough chopped pumpkin in a pre-heated hot oven with a little oil, butter and seasoning for about ten minutes. Keep warm.
2) Roast the chestnuts dry in a separate tray for around the same time. Peel when still warm.
3) Steam the Brussel sprouts for ten minutes or boil for five. Add to the other vegetables.
4) Using a hot fry pan, add a little rapeseed oil and fry the seasoned turkey breast until golden, adding a little butter to froth.
5) Heat the gravy.
Arrange the turkey pieces, vegetables and chestnuts fairly between two plates. Top with the fried sage and dried cranberries. Spoon over the gravy. Mulled wine, hot cider or a bold, cold white will do the trick. Merry Christmas...restaurant style.
An edited version of this article was printed in the December 2012 issue of Devon Life Magazine.