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The history of the turkey in this country is a curious one. The bird is supposedly named for the country, as merchants first traded turkeys from the Middle East to England. Considering the bird actually originates in North and Central America, and turned up relatively recently to these shores, it is remarkable that turkey enjoys such a prominent position in our cuisine - it's the quintessential Christmas centrepiece.
I'm of the view that if someone isn't keen on turkey, they probably haven't had it cooked properly, nor tried a heritage breed. The meat can be tricky to get right when roasting the whole bird, while turkeys in general do very well in intensive systems - victims of their own success, you might say.
Recently, I went to visit our flock of heritage breed turkeys - an unusual thing to see these days. You see, for years the Broad Breasted White Turkey was the preferred breed in this country. That was because the white feathers meant the bird's pin feathers are less visible when the carcass is dressed. In just a few years, populations of other breeds crashed as farmers concentrated on white turkeys. With it, centuries of turkey breeding almost completely disappeared, with the flame kept alive by small holders and enthusiasts.
Bronze turkeys are perhaps the best known of the heritage breeds, and like other breeds they do well in free range (extensive) systems rather than in intensive systems. The unmatched flavour of the smaller birds has sparked a loyal following, not least among top chefs. This year, all of our whole birds and turkey crowns will be from the Bourbon Red Breed. Our flock is kept in a large field adjacent to woodland, a stone's throw from Danbury Palace in Essex.
The land here is ideal. Turkeys require free draining land, while by nature they are a forest dwelling bird. Here, the birds can exhibit natural behaviours. The dense trees are a mixture of oak, chestnut, and cherry and the fruits, nuts, and acorns supplement the turkeys' natural diet. At night, the turkeys roost in the trees, staying out of harm's way.
As we walked through the field, we were followed by the inquisitive turkeys who came en masse to say hello. We stomped down on some nettles, the surprising favourite food of the turkey, and the gobblers swarmed. When a plane went overhead, the turkeys spooked and rushed into the trees, mistaking it for a bird of prey. These birds can move at clip when they want to, I tell you.
This natural life is only half the process though. Food miles are kept to a minimum, and a short journey from the woods is where the turkeys are dispatched and hung. Importantly, the birds are wax plucked not wet plucked (circumventing the pin feather problem) and allowing the turkeys to be game hung with their innards inside. This process is much like hanging beef - it intensifies the flavour and tenderises the meat. This was confirmed to me by a taste test of a Bourbon Red the day of my visit. It was easily the best turkey I've ever eaten - and this wasn't my first turkey taste test by a long shot.
Really, if you want quality turkey, game hanging and a named breed is what you need to look out for. This year, our range fits that bill perfectly and features not just whole birds and turkey crowns (which are exclusively Bourbon Red), but ballotines and stuffed turkey breasts to cater for smaller tables. We'll be using other heritage breeds for these, as unfortunately, there are only so many Bourbon Reds to go round. Our Executive Chef Jeff Baker who has crafted our range of aromatic infusions and stuffings to pair with the succulent meat.
Our flock will be growing plump over the next months, and if you decide to go for our exclusive Bourbon Red, you're in for a treat this Christmas.
Explore our truly free range turkey here.