Blog-post – Talking Turkey

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17th December 2014

It’s nearly that time of year again when we are planning our all important Christmas dinner. I think people expect something more exotic from me, but it’s tradition all the way in the Hamilton household and always have the full works: turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets, roasties, parsnips, sprouts, carrots, red cabbage, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, gravy and frankly anything else I can squeeze onto the plate!

Regular readers may remember that I gave you my brining recipe for turkey in last year’s blog so I wanted to take a different approach this time. My butcher Matt was telling me about the Great Garnetts’ turkeys he sources direct from the farm just outside Dunmow so I dropped in to the farm to see what I could find out.

I found the farm easily and as I was looking for somewhere to park and wondering what all the white, fluffy stuff was floating through the air, I nearly ran somebody over who turned out to be Jonathon Smith who owns and runs the farm with his wife Julie. Despite the poor driving I was invited in to the office where I also met Sarah who thankfully recognised me as she had been to one of my pop-up restaurants previously.

Sitting down with Jonny, Julie, Sarah and Basil the black Labrador it turned out I had arrived in the middle of plucking time – hence the white feathers all over the place! The Smiths had been farming at Great Garnetts since Jonny’s father Mike had come to the farm in 1971 and decided that he would get 50 turkeys one year to grow along with the cereal crop. That one-off endeavour has now become 6000 turkeys produced annually on the farm with the main business of the farm being pork production. What a great combination, you can get all your Christmas meat: turkey, garnishes and gammon from one farm.

Turkeys are quite different to anything else that farmers produce as they are the only ‘crop’ grown to a date rather than to maturity. Great Garnetts’ turkeys are all 24 weeks old at slaughter and yet customers demand all sorts of sizes and weights of bird. A farmer cannot be late to market with this particular product; there’s no point getting a perfect 12 kg weight bird on Boxing Day. So the only way to approach this is by rearing different types of the animal.

Whether the free-range Bronze or the barn-reared White, the team at Great Garnetts are absolutely committed to a slow-grown bird which is fed on a nutritionally specified feed of mainly wheat, which is provided by Marriage’s (the Essex millers – if it’s good enough for Paul Hollywood it’s certainly good enough for those turkeys!) It’s all about the flavour ultimately; a happy and well-developed bird will always taste better for that once-a-year meal.

Jonny used a car analogy to explain his philosophy about his turkeys: you can have a Skoda or a Rolls-Royce. They are both cars, they both have engines and a chassis, you have to put fuel in them and they will both get you to where you need to be. But the experience of getting there is very different; and we both agreed from our different perspectives that it is important to get the best turkey you can afford for Christmas Day.

I was interested in what turkeys were actually like as creatures and I was surprised to see them in action when Julie showed me some video taken of their 3 little boys trying to herd the bronze turkeys out in their field. It was hilarious; rather than run away the turkeys run towards you so I saw these small boys running out of the field, closely followed by a hundred or so chattering turkeys. But when the boys stopped the turkeys also stopped about 2 or 3 feet away and got back to pecking and foraging. They were really quite charming looking things, particularly as chicks, but I suspect in the nice-but-dim category of animal!

The production of the birds on the farm is also different to the way supermarkets produce their meat. The birds are dry-plucked by hand which limits the spread of any bacteria meaning the birds can be hung in a cold store and aged for around 10 days, further developing the flavour and softening the texture of the meat.

It was really great spending the morning with the whole team at the farm, particularly Basil, and to be amongst people who are passionate and committed to providing the best possible pork and turkey that they can to the local community. And they really are trying to look after their customers; with feedback that some people are still a little nervous about the exact cooking times for turkey, they are providing a nifty little gadget with all their birds this year called the pop-rite cooking timer for turkey! Although it sounds like something from the 1950s the timer goes into the turkey when you put it in the oven and has a red stem which pops out when the core temperature is at the correct level – how easy is that? Although I still maintain that every well-stocked kitchen should have a meat thermometer in any case – remember my ‘kitchen must-haves’ column readers!

As well as supplying many of the local butchers and farm shops in the area, and a few gastro-pubs, Great Garnetts also have a small retail outlet on the farm which opens on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as an on-line ordering option. Best of all they host regular farmer’s markets in the barn throughout the year and I can’t imagine why I haven’t been to one yet – so that’s certainly in the diary for next year.

As this is probably my last blog of 2014 I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers and clients a very merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. If you want a different approach to the Bridget-Jones-turkey-curry-buffet for all your turkey leftovers have a look at the recipes page on my website for a delicious turkey and cranberry biryani recipe.

Best wishes, Saira