Why goose is worth a gander this Christmas

Why goose is worth a gander this Christmas

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Tony Fleck

So accustomed are families in Britain to having turkey for Christmas, serving a goose in its place may seem to fly in the face of tradition.

But eating goose at this time of year is a tradition almost as old as the pagan festival adopted by the early church.

Turkeys only arrived in England as a 16th century import and, until about 100 years ago, would have been the less usual and more expensive choice, with geese the go-to bird.

But the bigger bird is now far and away the most common centrepiece for a Christmas day table.

About ten million are reared a year for this purpose, compared to nearly 250,000 geese, but the old favourite is making a comeback, with that figure the highest it has been since Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and rising every year.

This trend is one reflected by the evolving operation at Woolpack Corner Farm in Biddenden, where Kent Turkeys Ltd relocated earlier this year.

While the business has, as the name suggests, historically revolved around turkeys, customer demand has led to the recent addition of free-range geese.

Owner Tony Fleck said: “We’ve been doing turkeys for about 20 years, we’ve only been doing geese for five.

“We only rear about 150 to 180 a year at present, compared to 1,300 turkeys, but it’s getting more popular, and lots of customers are saying they want a more traditional Christmas dinner.

“We have a few left, but will have completely sold out by Christmas, so I can see us expanding that going forward.”

One reason geese have always been eaten in winter is that their nesting season is mid-March to May so, unfortunately for them, are born at just the right time to have grown to the perfect edible size by December 25.

Though they live just seven months, their journey from hatchling to main course is a long one.

“We get ours, Norfolk geese, in the last week of May when they’re about five days old,” said Tony.

“They go into a building with a heat lamp and wood shavings, where we keep them for between ten days and two weeks.

“We then put them into a polythene poultry house, moving them from shavings to straw.

“Within a couple of weeks, they start going out on the grass. Up to this point they’ve been having goose crumb, concentrated food.

“But geese are grazers, like sheep, and unlike turkeys, don’t rely on concentrated food. We give them an area outside to graze, which we rotate to allow the ground to recover, always making sure they have enough shade as they don’t like to be out in the sun.”

The geese enjoy the freedom of the fields all day, then come inside to feed and some warm straw. It’s a lifestyle that sounds almost pet-like, one that complements their character, according to Tony.

“Unlike turkeys, geese are very friendly,” he said.

“They will follow you around wherever you go. Once they get to know you, you can almost take them for a walk.”

Their friendliness only gets them so far however, for although the turkeys are slaughtered first, it’s not long before the geese take their turn.

Every stage of the operation, including the slaughter and the preparation, is done on site. After the birds have been killed, their feathers are removed with molten wax, not wet-plucked, a difference Tony stresses is very important.

Wet plucking is the method by which the vast majority of birds in this country are de-feathered. They are dipped into a bath of hot water and approved detergent to loosen the feathers, which are then plucked by machine.

Though the fastest, this method can, among other things, apparently lead to soft and pale skin which is hard to crisp when cooked.

“We wax our geese like a lady might her legs,” explained Tony. “Unlike turkeys, they have a load of down, hundreds of tiny feathers. We rip the wax off along with the feathers, then hang our nice clean geese up in the cold store for about a week.

“Once out of the cold store, we prepare them for the customer. We gut them, and package them up into a nice box, oven-ready.

“Our customers come about December 23 or 24 and we hand over the boxes, along with cooking instructions.”

Tony advises his customers to cook the goose on a griddle, which allows the large amounts of fat to run off, and start with the breast side down. He says the bird should never be covered with foil, and advises pouring the fat out intermittently while cooking. After an hour, he suggests, it should be turned over and cooked it the ‘right’ way up, then the fat can be used to roast potatoes.

While more and more people are turning to goose as hunger for tradition grows, Tony advises anyone wanting to try that it’s not a like-for-like replacement.

He explained: “I have to point out that the meat to bone ratio on a goose is nowhere near as good as on a turkey.

“If they tell me they have eight people to feed, I say they need a small turkey as well as a goose, in the same way you might have a ham and a turkey.

“With a turkey, you can have a range of around 4kg up to almost any size you want. Goose is much more limited, from about 4kg to 7kg.”

It’s not all about size though, with goose a more flavourful, gamier meat than turkey, and often more moist. And when it comes to the smaller bird, Tony changes from a breast to a leg man.

“With turkey, the breast meat is the thing everyone wants,” he said. “On goose the breast is still lovely, but in my opinion the leg meat is particularly nice.

“Interest in eating goose is definitely increasing year on year, but we are one of relatively few people doing them.

“As far as producers are concerned, the evisceration is difficult and the plucking labour-intensive.”
As long as Tony’s gaggle keeps growing though, there might be enough to go round.

Kent Turkeys will be at Penshurst farmers’ market on December 5, with a goose ready to cook, turning heads, and possibly tastes, towards a more traditional Christmas dinner.

For more information, visit www.kentturkeys.co.uk