Turkey Heads Back to the Bronze Age; after Nearly 50 Years of the Nation Consuming White Turkey Christmas Dinners as If Decreed by Law, People Are Now Looking for Alternatives, Reports Peter Elson

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Elson

WILD boar might seem rather mysterious in a medieval sort of way to us, but in fact it has been on man's menu for thousands of years.

In Britain it was the sport and food of the noble classes until, with typical foresight, they hunted it to extinction around three centuries ago.

Such was its status that the boar's head had great significance from earliest times, even having pride of place on Christmas day in the feudal halls.

Luckily these animals have survived in mainland Europe, principally in the forests of Germany, France, Denmark and eastern Europe.

Over the last decade some breeding animals have been brought in to Britain, where they are now farmed at a handful of locations and are finding their way onto our Christmas dinner tables.

It's part of a growing desire for more variety in our festive fare. Having been hell-bent on ensuring that the main meal at Christmas was always turkey-shaped, the population is now becoming more adventurous.

The big poultry producers said that they developed white turkey in the 1950s due to housewives' growing distaste for bronze and black feather stubble protruding through the skin on the older traditional turkey breeds.

However, after decades of chomping through what seems increasingly bland or tasteless meat, people are now looking for alternatives.

As is so often, that which was dispensed with as old hat is now at the forefront of the search for tastier meats. Britain is rediscovering goose, capons (fully-grown cockerels), three bird roasts, venison and wild boar.

``Goose used to be the traditional British choice for Christmas Day. It was only in the 1930-40s that the American habit of eating turkey came here and then it swept through the country, '' says Simon Buckmaster of Ward's Fish, based in the food hall at Birkenhead Market.

Simon, with his brother Nigel, are the fourth generation of their family to run the business, which was started in 1927 by their great-grandmother Emily Ward as a wet-fish stall.

With their colleagues Peter O'Callaghan and Pat Grimmer they have also developed into a specialist meat supplier. After launching an internet web site two years ago, they now have customers from as far away as Wolverhampton.

Simon says: ``Then the big poultry companies concentrated on dominating the markets with the newly-developed, mass-produced white feather turkeys. In response, Derek Kelly brought back the traditional bronze birds in the 1960s after investigating what the Rare Breed Society and others had managed to save.

``These have gradually become popular, but because goose became unpopular decades ago, its revival has been slower. Yet it's never really disappeared

and it has its own club. ''

Not that it's cheap. A goose stuffed with guinea fowl and two boneless pheasants (a three bird roast) costs from pounds 70-pounds 150, but it can feed 10 to 30 people.

Each bird takes 30 minutes to prepare by Ward's own staff.

They have been sold for the last 15 years, with the birds coming from suppliers in Cheshire and Warwickshire.

``Goose is an expensive meat because the bird has a lot of carriage and little meat per pound. By stuffing it with other birds, it's a good way of making the meal go a long way, '' says Simon Buckmaster. ``One year we had a goose left over and I experimented with stuffing it with other meats and the idea just took off. We sell about 50 at Christmas as that's all we can manage. It's been so popular that we were sold out three weeks ago. All the traditional game meats are seeing a revival. Venison particularly has undergone a resurgence.

``What is surprising is the interest there is in fish for Christmas. Not only salmon, but wild sea bass (which costs about pounds 5 per person) and proper Scottish halibut. Capons used to be desexed with rubber bands and the cockerels would over-eat to compensate - this has now been outlawed - although it produced a lovely meat. …