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Turkey alternatives

…have goose instead. fiona beckett charts the renewed interest in this traditional festive bird, and explains why any old goose just won’t do

Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration…

The excerpt from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reminds us that goose is the traditional British festive meal. Smallholders would fatten a goose for Christmas, others subscribed to Goose Clubs to secure their Christmas bird and Goose Fairs were held all over England (one still survives in Nottingham) to march geese to market. It was not until after World War I that turkey became synonymous with Christmas.

After the war, as goose escalated in price, chickens came to the table, then the American holiday of Thanksgiving, when turkey is served, influenced the British: it was cheap, easy to breed and to fatten – one bird would feed a family, with enough left for Boxing Day. Frozen turkeys sealed the deal, as they could be bought and stored well before Christmas.

Turkey may be popular, but goose is a much greater treat. It has a more complex, rich flavour, and the rise in the number of geese being reared suggests more people are realising this. I remember writing a piece for The Times in the early ’90s when the producer I went to see – GB Geese, near Grantham – was one of only a handful in the country. Today there are more than 70, and those with flocks have doubled or tripled their size.

While Judy Goodman of Goodman’s Geese, one of the longest-established producers, considers the type of goose much less important than what they’re fed, the French take provenance more seriously. Larousse Gastronomique says there are two kinds of geese: the petite and the grosse, the latter mainly found near Toulouse and used for foie gras.

‘The goose reared in the southwest is a mongrel variety of the grey goose and the wild goose, a bird recognised to produce a large liver when fattened. There are regional sub-varieties: the Toulouse goose, those raised in the Gers and those in Les Landes, each producing variations in liver size and shape,’ adds Jeanne Strang, author of Goose Fat and Garlic.

Superior flavour

As it is illegal to force-feed birds in the UK, most producers opt for a breed that has a good ratio of meat to bone. According to Norfolk Geese, which supplies day-old chicks to many goose producers, Legarth is the most popular modern breed, though they are experimenting with a heavier breed called Superstow. The Wessex goose, reared by a few West Country producers, is smaller but has a superior flavour.

One of the big advantages of geese is that they cannot be intensively reared. ‘The best results are obtained with geese allowed to live in the open in a semi-wild state on pastureland or in enclosures provided with shelter and green forage,’ according to Corrado Barberis, author of the foreword to The Goose: History, Folklore and Ancient Recipes. ‘Geese will actually eat anything that’s standing up: grass, stubble, straw… but we finish them on a compound feed that’s based on wheat, soya and maize,’ says Goodman.

Derek Quelch, head chef at the Goring Hotel in London, which puts on an annual Michaelmas Goose menu, says you can detect a difference between birds that have been fed different diets. ‘I used to think a goose was a goose, but I went to a tasting where the geese were sourced from five to six producers around the country and you could definitely taste the difference.’

The other key factor is the hanging, which follows a similar pattern to game. ‘We dry-pluck ours and hang them ‘‘long-legged” in a cold room at 1°C–2°C for up to two weeks,’ says Goodman. ‘Long-legged means the guts are left in and that helps develop the flavour. But we can’t sell them that way to butchers unless they have a slaughterhouse licence, so most of our sales are done direct.’ Michael Coleman of Hewish Farm in Dorset, agrees: ’ You don’t want to touch those wretched frozen supermarket things – all wet-plucked and slimey.’

Although goose is pricey, every part of the bird can be used. (Over the centuries geese have been prized for their feathers and down; archers used pinion feathers to make flights for arrows, and goose quills were used for writing until the late 19th century.) ‘There is barely one part of the creature that cannot be made into an excellent dish,’ writes Elizabeth Luard in English Peasant Cookery.

Goose fat – more plentiful in older Christmas birds than younger Michaelmas or ‘green geese’ – not only had culinary uses but medicinal ones, rubbed on the chest to cure coughs and colds. ‘They were used in cooking in most of southwest France because the summers were too dry for rearing cattle on a large scale,’ says Strang. ’Butter or beef fat was not available, nor was olive oil because the winters were too cold for olive trees.

The birds’ flesh would be made into confit with nothing wasted. A goose could be divided into four, with the neck skin stuffed to form a large sausage (confit de cou farci), the giblets and wings preserved (confit d’abattis) and the scraps of meat left on the carcass made into rillettes.’

English dishes were less ambitious, apart from a spectacular goose pie which involved stuffing a goose with a turkey, itself stuffed with a duck, which had been stuffed with a chicken, which was stuffed with either smaller birds or forcemeat, and cooked in pastry – the forerunner of the modern day three-bird roast.

Quelch at The Goring likes braised red cabbage, caramelised apples, and sage and onion stuffing as accompaniments, along with a gravy made from the goose carcass (see p128 for more on the perfect gravy). I prefer the tradition of stuffing the bird with potato. But the best bonus is the superb goose fat you get, which will make for the tastiest roast potatoes ever.

Written by Fiona Beckett

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