So, Christmas has been and gone for another year. And in this part of Wales, as in most of the UK, it was a very soggy grey time. In fact, to date, we’ve only had 3 rain free December days.
But I shall record the follow up to our first home reared turkey meal, since it continued to evoke some interesting thoughts and reactions.
I opted in the end to hang our turkey for 7 days, plucked, but with body intact in one of our cool stonewalled outbuildings. As temperatures rose a little by the 22nd, I reckoned it would be prudent to draw the intestines. I’d turned on our Brennan music player on a dark morning, and as is its want, it had randomly played a movement from ‘The Gladiator’ soundtrack. As I walked to the shed to bring the hanging carcase inside, (Chuzzlewhit had in my mind changed from animate being, into potential meal once the plucking had begun), I reckoned that some new ritual routine should be developed to this next part of preparing our Christmas meal, and responding to the above musical cue, decided that playing the whole Gladiator soundtrack whilst preparing the carcase for cooking would hit the spot in terms of emotional mix – strength, sadness, conquest, pathos, death.
After my second wielding of the carrot measured carbon steel, handling the tissues made me realise that there was indeed quite a lot of hidden subcutaneous fat, quickly lubricating my working fingers with a smooth oily coating as the warmth of my hands touched tissues now softened by time, from the initial rigid rigor. But as the crop, oesophagus and trachea were freed, and my right hand worked into the front entrance to the body cavity, I started to marvel at the efficiency of a bird’s anatomy and biology, which had in a few months grown him to this weight (7.3 Kg) with barely 14% of inedible organs. The hugely distensible thin balloon of the crop’s food storage organ appeared completely empty – all the advice was that turkeys should be starved for at least 12 hours before being killed. (In fact, we’d made no changes to their overnight routine, before the morning of their slaughter).
Then gently working my fingers in through the anterior of the body cavity, the hidden fascia and air sacs could be separated, by feel, from the body wall. Moving to the vent, a circular incision and a linear mid line cut allowed similar gentle forward finger movement to free all attachments.
The draw began. The complete digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular, hepatic and renal organ systems were removed in one interconnected pull. No messy diaphragm to separate thorax from abdomen, and no obvious trace of the air sacs. Fascinated as I was by the size and appearance of the gizzard, with its blue-silver tinged fascial covering over thick muscular wall, quite unlike any part of a mammalian digestive tract, I wasn’t even aware of the lung tissues. Too late I discovered that the gizzard can be prepared as a confit/rillette delicacy by cooking in some of the mesenteric fat. Click here for a very good sounding link.
From my comparative anatomy I did know that birds have ‘to and fro’ lungs, air being moved through them into a group of flimsily walled air sacs, before being passed back again through the lungs and hence not needing a mammalian style diaphragm to create negative pressure to help inflate the lungs as breathing occurs. The neck and feet were removed, and since we opt for boneless 3 bird roasts, I handed over to Fiona at this stage, to complete the boning out process, which was just finished as the gladatorial soundtrack reached its finale.
Christmas Eve saw us meeting up with children and grandchildren in a central Carmarthen traditional Welsh cafe (Caban y dderwen – The oak cabin) for a celebratory birthday lunch. Before this we’d nipped into the enormous local Tesco Extra warehouse for a couple of last minute provisions, and standing in a checkout queue in a store almost completely bereft of the normal Christmas glittery decorations (austerity Britain has perhaps understandably really seeped into the national psyche this year, at least here), I was drawn into conversation with a stocky elderly Welshman. Dressed in suitable attire for the weather and geography – coat, thick jumpers, two woolly hats, a couple of days stubble, I had to strain to catch the drift of the conversation’s direction in his strong local dialect. Essentially it was about the meaningless nature of most people’s Christmas these days. That and the weather being unseasonal. And that he told his grandchildren not to come and ask him for money until they knew the VALUE of it. People had it too easy these days. You needed to work and earn it to appreciate its real value.
By chance or design he’d picked a receptive ear for his philosophical thread. Just how sympathetic was revealed the following day, when to my complete surprise ‘Santa’ dumped the following book in my stocking:
Actually though, I’d forgotten about this brief interlude, and not even told Fiona about the conversation’s drift, until after Christmas day.
This year we’d spent a lot more time researching turkey cooking guidelines. Fiona rubbed salt into the breast and left the dressed bird out of the fridge overnight, wiped the salty paste off in the morning and patted it dry and then, weighing in at about 7 Kg with home made sausage meat, duck breasts and guinea fowl filling, we’d just fitted the foil wrapped tray into the wood burning stove at about 11.30 am. Keeping the stove at about the correct moderate (roughly 150 degrees C) temperature through the day was a bit challenging over such a long period, but one of the joys of using a wood fired stove is that it’s a very tolerant form of cooking heat. A couple of turns and bastes, removing the foil with about 45 minutes to go, and finally leaving the bird to stand for a good hour or so (covered with foil, and insulated with towels) before supper, completed the now recorded routine.
So what was the verdict?
With the first mouthful I was convinced that this was the best turkey we’d ever eaten. Beautiful flavour, and succulent moist texture. And a fitting memorial for Chuzzlewhit. I will definitely do this again.
But what about everybody else? Actually catering for young grandchildren inevitably influences the tone and conversations of a family Christmas supper. But I waited for other’s reactions. And waited.
At some point, I mused on the spectacle we’d witnessed earlier in the month, after researching plucking methods, of a You Tube Video of Gordon Ramsay and Paul Kelly trying to set a world record for the fastest plucking of 3 turkeys in front of a vociferous gaggle of onlookers. The just-killed turkeys were brought in from stage right. Not much respect for the birds in this, I’d thought. And of conversation with another relative, earlier on Christmas day morning, when I learned that their meal was to be two turkeys cooked in different ovens by different cooks, since the turkeys had been bought dramatically reduced in price as ‘good value’.
And I thought about the concepts of price, value and the connections, or lack of them, which most British consumers now have with what goes onto our plates and into our mouths and digestive systems. It hasn’t always been like this, and even now, do less ‘advanced’ cultures value their food more highly? After all it was, and in many parts of the world still is, THE BIG ISSUE.
Where is the next meal coming from?
I do think that I’ve had an epiphany with rearing, killing and eating this turkey, and far more dramatic than the buzz from years of growing as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible. It’s not just that things often taste better, if not always look better, than commercial produce; or that you know the provenance and what has and hasn’t gone into its production.
It’s more that you really do seem to VALUE the food on your plate, far more than with any bought produce. And that since both simple nutrition, and the joy of cooking and sharing a meal with others is such a pivotal human activity, it’s worth doing it the best way you can, and savouring the experience.
But then, whilst still waiting patiently amidst the chatter for any verdict on our meal, another strange thought came into my head. The children’s stories by Oscar Wilde, under ‘The Happy Prince’ title. I really hadn’t thought about these for decades, and as a consequence my brain jumbled them up. But I do remember as a child being moved to tears by their sad endings, when I’d read them. You can download the book for free by clicking here.
The first story I thought of was the one about fireworks, ‘The Remarkable Rocket’ and how he eventually had his fleeting moment, but no one even noticed. But reading reviews of the work to refresh my failed memory, perhaps ‘The Nightingale and The Rose’ was just as apt for my Christmas meal moment. For those unfamiliar with this piece, a nightingale hears that a young student can only gain the affections of the daughter of the household by supplying a red rose from the garden. But all the roses in the garden are white. So the little bird, having overheard the love torn student, sings its beautiful song, whilst pressing its breast firmly to the rose’s thorns. As the blood drains away and life leaves its tiny body, miraculously, the rose bloom begins to change colour, and finishes a deep red, just as the bird collapses and dies. Subsequently the student, unaware of its fateful provenance, is delighted to find this single red rose in the garden, and picks the flower to give to his lover.
The punchline or moralistic ending? By now the girl has a new admirer who has brought her jewels, not a simple flower, so the perfect flower is tossed into the gutter, and the student abandoned.
Eventually the meal was indeed enjoyed, and the turkey commented on. Undoubtedly I had far too much emotional involvement with this, but as always I’m intrigued by the juxtapositions of events and thoughts, and how once the dust has settled, you feel that life has been enriched and you’ve learned something from these experiences.
By now the feet and head of Chuzzlewhit had been carefully buried beneath the Rhododendron catawbiense var. album. Perhaps from a gardening point of view this wasn’t entirely rational with a certain amount of calcium being present in their bony structures, and of course most rhododendrons prefer a lime free environment, but I reckon we’ll escape issues with our very acid rainfall here.
Springtime will certainly jog memories as the red spotted, white flowers open.
But apart from this written memorial to our first turkey, we were lucky enough to have been given an almost life size metal chicken or bird sculpture by our son for Christmas, to add to the accumulation of rusting metal objects which feature in our garden. Modelled from individually pressed rusty steel oak leaf shapes, it was only a question of time before I photographed it. The opportunity presented itself surprisingly quickly. Having fed the birds early on Boxing day morning I noticed a brief respite from uniformly grey skies to the South east. A band of light.
Spotting a potential photo I grabbed the cameras, and then seeing the reflections from the rain soaked slate wall capping, I remembered the metal bird and nipped inside to grab him. I’d taken a few images when, as the clouds behind me darkened, hints of pink and red suffused the clouds to the South. I hung on, kneeling low for the right perspective, with dressing-gowned knee getting more and more wet from the sodden, cushioned layer of oak leaves and Persicaria vaccinifolia stems beneath it.
Some of the memorial images are below.
And an hour later the rains and wind had returned.
All colour was gone.
More on ‘The Reactor’, which seems to be chugging along in a fairly predictable fashion, next time.