Dec 21 2007

Turkey Time Again

Get Iuye and hull, woman deck vp thyne house
And take this same brawne, for to seeth and to souse.
Prouide as good chere , for thou knowst the old guise:
Olde customes, that good be, let no man despise.
At Christmas be mery, and thanke god of all:
and feast thy pore neighbours, the great and the small.
yea all the year long ,haue an eie to the poore:
and god shall sende luck, to kepe open thy doore.


Repetition, repetition, repetition… grey sky, east wind, bare branches, clipped hedgerows, empty fields, a grey veil floating across the valley, it’s winter again, December. Everything the same, year in year out, or is it? Not quite, no more waiting for a slow old Labrador as we cross the fields to check the sheep.

Sheep_sage_3 Min_resting_3 Minkittens_sheep_3

Instead kittens join us and play rough games while we dawdle on the hilltop gazing at Dartmoor in the misty distance. We wait for Min. It’s her turn to slow down now, little fourteen year old Cairn terrier legs don’t travel as fast as they did. Four donkeys graze quietly now instead of six, chickens are scarce in the yard, even old Humphrey, the goose has gone.


In the quiet farmyard my mind drifts back to turkeys, the hustle and bustle, the frantic pre Christmas rush of previous years. I remember my perennial pre-Christmas anxiety to allot the right size bird to the right customer, to fulfil the family ritual of ordering and collecting the precious bird; all finished now.


But why turkey, I wonder as I feed sheep, donkeys and early bantam chicks. Where do they come from? I wander thoughtfully home and happy to be warm again, begin a trawl through old cookbooks and histories of food. After all, we know from countless records that chicken and pheasant, pigeon and snipe, swans and geese adorned Medieval tables; but no mention of turkeys. I wonder why and as I skip from book to book, a strange story gradually unfolds.

Turkeys begin to be mentioned in English manuscripts around 1523 after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Their exact route from Mexico to Europe is uncertain. There is not only confusion about how they got here but how they became known as “Turkeys” when they reached our shores.

The large birds, long domesticated by the Aztecs, were probably brought back to Spain by the Conquistadors. They quickly became popular on Spanish tables, enjoyed for their flavour and meaty carcass, a welcome change to goose. Soon merchants from Turkey and the Levant, en route from the Eastern Mediterranean, picked up birds in Seville and brought them to Britain and other parts of Europe.

The Mexican name of “Uexolotl” was a little difficult to roll around the English tongue so “turkey–cock” was used to describe the new fowl. This may have been after these Turkish merchants or the bird’s preferred food, Turkish maize, which had also just arrived here. Birds ate the new grain voraciously.

History is full of contradictions but one thing is certain, when in 1530 the smaller and slightly similar Guinea Fowl or Numida arrived in Portugal from West Africa, it was confused for some time with the turkey-cock. Despite the efforts of Archbishop Cranmer, whose Sumptuary Laws, which were intended to discourage “over-elaborate banqueting” classed the birds with cranes and swans whilst guinea fowl remained with capon and pheasant.

The confusion continued into the eighteenth century with Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who, in his efforts to classify everything in nature with a Latin name gave the turkey the generic name “meleagris,” the classical Roman name for Guinea fowl familiar to Pliny and Aristotle.

By 1555 we are told flocks of fowl were being driven from Norfolk and Suffolk to London wearing little boots to protect their feet! Records show that the price of turkey was now officially fixed. The birds became popular on large estates and parks “for gentlemen delighting in their flying behaviour” They were often watched over by a boy who would whistle to call them to feed. Farmers on the other hand were not so keen on them “for their troublesome breeding up and being great devourers of corn.” The young birds were very frail, hated the wet and were constantly at risk to hawks, pole-cats and even stinging nettles which would kill the poults. It all sounds horribly familiar! For pole-cats read foxes and badgers and, on one dreadful occasion here a few years ago, we lost a major part of our flock to mink.

By1586 Thomas Dawson was giving instructions on boning the turkey-cock for banquets. Gervais Markham‘s “The English Hus-wife” 1615, contained many turkey recipes. So when the starving Pilgrim Fathers landed in Massachusetts in 1620 and feasted, famously on that third Thursday in November, they were eating familiar food!

My battered 1880 Mrs Beeton has no less than six pages dedicated to the turkey fowl. As well as recipes she gives a great deal of information about the history and breeding of the birds. Her version of their arrival to our shores is a little different again: “ There is but little doubt, from this information which has been gained at considerable trouble that it ( the turkey) appeared generally in Europe about the end of the seventeenth century: that it was first imported into France by Jesuits who had been sent out missionaries to the West: and that from France it spread over Europe….”

She goes on to say that the bird’s mortality rate was very high indeed in the C18th but was improving by her time of writing as the birds gradually became acclimatised to our wetter climate. She quotes Thomas Tusser as evidence of the popularity of Turkey at Christmas dating back to his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” 1585

“Beefe mutton and pork, shred pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest;
Cheese apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.”

Turkey meat has a reputation of being heavy and dry but this is entirely dependant on the cooking. Elaborate old recipes suggest boning and stuffing the turkey with a succession of smaller birds, ending with a tiny snipe or woodcock, itself filled with truffles. The whole is roasted in beef dripping and served with thick floury gravy; a tad heavy indeed to our modern taste!

Mrs Beeton’s recipes do little to dismiss this myth even though she forgoes the bird within a bird and introduces sausages, and forcemeat and chestnut stuffings which we would recognise today. Interestingly she reproduces two of “Miss Acton’s Recipes” lifted, no doubt, from Eliza Acton’s delightful “Modern Cookery” published in 1845. These do give instructions on boning a bird without breaking the skin. However Miss Acton suggests one should draw the legs and wings into the body of the bird to reduce the large amount of forcemeat required to fill such a cavity and “ thus diminish the expense of this”.

It is not until I reach for the delightful “Gentle Art of Cookery” by Mrs Leyel and Olga Hartley that my spirits begin to rise. Prunes and the chopped liver appear in the stuffing with chestnuts and bacon and Marsala, The bird is first braised with rosemary, carrot, cloves and garlic before being finished in the oven and served with a sauce made from the braising liquor. No wonder Elisabeth David found Mrs Leyel, she of Culpeper House fame, such an inspiration, such a breath of fresh air! Gone at last were the endless bland rechauffes and fricassees.

And what for me, a child of Constance Spry’s Winkfield Place, a cook at Nick’s Diner, no women chefs in those days, a disciple of Elisabeth David and Jane Grigson and then a turkey and chicken producer myself? Having raised these frail little flowers from poults to mature table birds I could not let them go to the Christmas table without a few hints on their cooking!;



First make the Turkey Stuffing:

Stuffing helps to keep the bird moist, it bastes from within. Older cookery books often suggest stuffing the turkey at each end; traditionally forcemeat one end and chestnut the other.

12 prunes soaked in red wine

grated rind half lemon

8oz peeled and cooked chestnuts

1oz butter

1 head celery chopped

2oz chopped onion

1dsp chopped mixed herbs

salt & pepper

1 small beaten egg

Simmer the prunes in the wine till tender, cool, stone and cut into four. Soften celery and onion in butter over a low heat, add prunes, herbs, salt and pepper, lemon rind, and chestnuts, broken into pieces. Stir lightly with a fork, allow to cool thoroughly before binding together with the beaten egg.

Or…….how about this adapted version of a Traditional Italian stuffing based on Orvieto Chicken…..

turkey giblets

1 lb potatoes

large onion

30 garlic cloves unpeeled ..yes!

fennel bulb

8oz black olives

fresh sprig rosemary

lemon zest and juice

glass dry white wine

3 tbsp. virgin olive oil

Take the turkey giblets : first remove “oysters” of meat from gizzard with a sharp knife then chop up together with the heart and liver. .

Dice peeled potatoes, fennel and onion.

Pull apart Garlic heads until you have about 30 cloves.

Crush 2 cloves of garlic.

Pit olives …..or better still…….buy them pitted!

Pull leaves of rosemary from the twig and chop (please don’t bother with dried rosemary…!!)

Zest and juice the lemon

Melt the potatoes, fennel and onions in the olive oil until just soft. Add the giblets and crushed garlic, then stir in the whole garlic cloves ( don’t bother to peel!), then the olives, fresh chopped rosemary, zest and juice of lemon, salt and pepper and the white wine.

Spoon all this mixture into the turkey….Delicious!

Now for the turkey….Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6

Remove giblets from inside turkey. You may like to make a little stock with these for your gravy later if you have not already included them in the stuffing.

Fill the central cavity with a stuffing of your choice and weigh the turkey again. To calculate cooking time allow 15 minutes per lb for a bird up to 14lb and 20-25 minutes for a larger bird.

Melt a little butter and oil in the roasting tin and place the bird on its side on a rack in the tin. Spread it with more butter, or wrap in butter-soaked muslin. Add the giblets, if you decide not to make stock or add them to the stuffing, together with a pint of water to the tin and cover the whole thing in tin foil. Keep the liver to fry and add to the gravy later. Place the bird in the centre of the hot oven.

A little before half time take the turkey out of the oven, turn it onto its other side, baste well and re -cover carefully.

Twenty minutes before the end of the cooking time remove the bird from the oven and turn breast up, baste again and sprinkle with salt and pepper and return to the hot oven to brown.

Test at the end of cooking time by sticking a long skewer into the thickest part of the thigh, if the juice is clear the turkey is cooked.

When cooked allow the bird to REST, covered in a warm place for about 20 minutes. This will make it much easier to carve and allow the juices to sink back into the meat.

To make the GRAVY remove a little of the melted butter and meat juices from the roasting pan, mix it with a desert spoon of corn flour and return to pan. Add red wine and red currant jelly and some stock stirring all the time. Keep stirring the gravy over a brisk heat until it clears and thickens to a rich syrupy consistency. Strain before serving. The sliced and lightly fried liver may be added to the gravy after straining.

Cold Turkey is delicious but just in case you want to ring the changes here are a couple of ideas… …


Now here is a really delicious and exotic way to use up that left over turkey! And very simple too.

Bake a ring of Cheese Choux Pastry and fill it with the turkey, warmed in a rich cream and sherry sauce.

For the pastry put 150ml of water in a small pan with 50gm of butter. Bring it to the boil and then shoot in 75gm of sifted plain flour and beat like mad with a wooden spoon having taken it off the heat. Leave it to cool, then beat in two eggs. Next stir in 80gms of tiny cubes of gruyere cheese (cheddar will do!) a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Grease an oven proof dish and pile the rich yellow paste around the edges to make a ring (with a hole in the centre for the turkey filling later). Bake at 220c ((425f or gas 7) for about 40 mins. depending on your oven. The secret with choux pastry is to cook it longer than you think you should! It smells wonderful after 20 mins. but it must have a chance to dry out inside.

Meanwhile make a sauce in the usual way: 25gm butter and 25gm flour melted and mixed to form a roux, whisk in 300ml milk, stock or left over gravy ( if you use gravy remember to cut down on the flour in the roux). Bring to the boil stirring all the time and continue to cook for a couple of minutes to cook the flour. Cheer it up with a dash of sherry, a spoonful of that cream at the back of the fridge or a dollop of crème freche. You can add mushrooms, a little blanched broccoli, left over stuffing….whatever you fancy. Season it well and pile it up into the crispy ring of choux pastry. You have Gougere.

All you need now is a green salad and a glass of wine.


Here is an OLD ENGLISH recipe which still survives in Sussex.

Line a deep pudding basin with suet crust pastry, pack tightly with pieces of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy. Cover with a lid of the suet crust and steam as you would a steak and kidney pudding.

Dorothy Hartley ( Food in England: 1974) says a mushroom sauce goes very well with this.

Happy Christmas!


One response so far

One Response to “Turkey Time Again”

  1. Ali & Rog & Harry & Winnie & Mollyon 21 Dec 2007 at 10:06 pm

    With all our warm wishes, licks & woofs,

    Happy Christmas to you on the farm.


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