Let's talk turkey – rearing a festive feast is rewarding
There's a lot of work involved when you could just easily buy a bird, but nothing beats a Christmas dinner raised in your own garden
WITH Halloween over, the countdown to Christmas is well and truly on, and as a result we have turkeys back in our garden again. Each year we rear four turkeys, with one becoming the centrepiece of our Christmas Day celebrations, and the balance jointed and put in to the freezer.
It's an arrangement that has worked well for us for a number of years now, providing some amazing fresh meat at a time of the year when our food production efforts are winding down, and we're focused on eating food that we've managed to get in to storage.
I love keeping turkeys for the same reason that I love going to the trouble of making my own Gravad Lax for Christmas as opposed to just buying it in the shop (the trials and tribulations of my Gravad Lax endeavours are a bit of a running joke in our family).
I just love the idea of all that effort being put in to a single meal, particularly the Christmas meal that so wonderfully celebrates the turn of the year with kith and kin.
There's a lot of work involved in rearing turkeys for the table, and of course a week before Christmas we have to steel ourselves and get stuck in to killing, plucking and gutting them, which is never pleasant (for us or them).
It would be a lot easier to just buy a good free-range bird, so why bother? Well, to my mind, all the work seems to make the Christmas dinner all the more special – and, of course, the fact that the turkeys are out and about in the fresh air, with unlimited access to grass, makes the meat particularly delicious. What could be better than sitting down to a Christmas dinner that has been reared in your own back garden?
If you have the space in your garden for them, it's a brilliant little project, if you can find a farmer or breeder willing to sell them to you. The farmer we buy them from rears free-range turkeys commercially.
This year we were very late getting them, and they are practically ready for the table already – in fact, I think he showed considerable forbearance in selling them to us for €20 a pop so late in the year, when he will probably get three times that for them in just a few short weeks.
Traditionally, turkeys would have been hatched at Easter and fattened for Christmas very gradually, fighting with the farmyard hens for scraps. The modern, commercial super-sized turkey is bred to put on weight quicker than that – the idea is to keep them relatively immobile and get them up to weight quickly so it costs less to feed them.
It's slower and more expensive to rear a turkey outdoors (taking about six months), but the meat flavour intensifies if the bird is outside, developing muscle by moving around and diversifying their diet by grazing on grass and grubs.
Ours are very fine birds indeed – two 'regular' white and two beautiful bronze. The latter are the turkey equivalent of an heirloom vegetable variety – harder to source but full of flavour. The extra layer of fat under the skin means they practically self-baste while cooking, giving you beautifully moist and succulent meat. The weight after cooking is also higher, which seems to indicate that they lose less in the cooking than their industry-standard cousins.
Though in a separate house, they are sharing a run with our hens and ducks. It's not generally considered such a good idea to run turkeys and hens together, with the risk of the transmission of blackhead (histomoniasis) between them – but I am willing to chance it given the relatively small amount of time the turkeys will be here.
The first day we let the turkeys out in to the run, the hens and ducks spent a few hours cowering underneath an old trailer, worried about these strange new intruders in to their little universe. But by now, they are getting used to each other.
Turkeys have some unique characteristics when compared with hens – there are all those wonderful 'gobble-gobble' sounds for one thing. While hens head for their house as soon as it gets dark (so there is no 'rounding up' to do), turkeys are far more interested in roosting on top of a wall, or on the compost heap. Each night since we got them, we've had to lift them down from a tree or some other lofty perch, and put them in to their house. Incidentally they are far easier to handle than hens – they seem to like human interaction.
It's a little late to get turkeys for rearing now but you can still make the decision to get the best possible bird for your own table. For one thing, make sure you're supporting an Irish farmer – ask your butcher where the turkeys are reared. Do not settle for an imported bird. If you can afford it, try to get a free-range (and ideally bronze) turkey.
Gerry McEvoy in Sallins, Kildare, has an immaculate farm and his main trade is with individual customers who go out to the farm to collect their turkeys in advance of Christmas. He's passionate about the breed and free-range farming, and welcomes visits to his farm, where his turkeys graze on home-grown wheat, apples, nettles and kale. In other words – they are the real deal. Call 045 875316 or visit www.bronzeturkeys.ie.
Michael Kelly is author of Trading Paces and Tales from the Home Farm, and founder of GIY