I was wondering what it was like to sit around the Christmas table in the past when it was not so easy to just purchase an oven ready turkey for everyone to feast on. First of all in Europe there simply were no turkeys until America was discovered in the middle ages and this wild bird first domesticated by the native Indians there was quickly brought back to the old world and bred so that it became widely popular. At first it would have been just the aristocrats and royalty who could afford them but eventually they would make their way onto everyone’s table for special occasions.
It was not even called turkey at first either. They were thought to be a type of guinea fowl originating in North Africa and even considered of eastern origin hence the French name for them is dinde, literally meaning of India. The imports of poultry into Europe via Turkey eventually gave it the modern name as it was known in that era as a turkey hen since it was traded by the Turks. Finally the word turkey was used on its own. When the first settlers in America wanted to celebrate their thanksgiving day there was only one thing that fitted the bill and that was the native turkey.
It is not as if the turkey had no relatives in Europe, they belong to the same family as our grouse, pheasant and partridges but being able to grow much larger as the breeding techniques improved turkey was always going to be the big bird. In the wild they can be aggressive and were often known to attack humans. Even the farmed ones can get a bit upset if spooked. The natural life span is around ten years but of course the ones on the table for Christmas will have only had a six month life from start to finish.
They can have five thousand feathers and a plump live weight of up to twenty kilos for a male reducing to around twelve when prepared and less again when actually cooked, but that is still a lot of meat.Of course there are smaller ones and flavour is all depending on the breed, feed and lifestyle and there is no doubt animal welfare is becoming a seriously controversial topic for younger generations and the reality of the situation is simply that intensive rearing of any livestock for food and especially having a short life in a cage is not going to sit well in the modern conscience.
The problem is that white meat is deemed healthier than red meat so consumer demand means production has to be speeded up to satisfy the huge global market. It is a circle that just cannot be squared but maybe in the future it will when the meat is made artificially in a lab and not an abattoir.
As a chef for me, organic is naturally the way to go where there will have been a life of freedom to roam in a pasture, feeding on its preferred diet of grains, seeds, nuts, grass and plants, even vegetables. They love slugs and worms too and are very efficient at finding food. As a result of such a healthy diet the meat will be higher in the likes of omega 3 fatty acids which is good for us.
It will not contain any antibiotics and hormones which can only harm us long term despite the current biased science saying that all those chemicals are fine. The big issue is price, as to raise food so naturally on an organic farm is going to cost a lot more than to breed and process it industrially. Free range is only up a notch for me and still far again from organic.
Sadly the consumer is just not going to pay the price that the organic turkey will cost at easily over a hundred Euros now when the intensively produced ones can be half the price and much less again depending on size.
Tradition has it that we must have turkey, but a goose or a duck is perfectly acceptable too and some are moving away altogether to say roast beef, in the past it was typically spiced beef when turkeys were rare in the cities. Tastier vegetarian and plant based roasts are fast making the Christmas table too. I would even be happy with seafood. Whatever you are having then enjoy the occasion and don’t get too stressed in the kitchen.