The Kerfuffle. The Catch. The Short Walk.
And afterwards, the time to reflect. And this year, with greater numbers of birds brought on from their yellow igloo kitchen incubation, and coaxed from tough dry shells, through whistled first days, to daily apple and leek top treats, the bonding has been greater.
But like much here, routines must be worked out, tweaked and honed.
And so it it is that unlike conventional advice which suggests a pre killing starvation period of 12 hours to reduce crop size, I now scan the weather forecasts for a window of opportunity – a dry, preferably still afternoon, so that afterwards, since plucking a turkey needs to be done quickly to remove the feathers easily, I can sit on a chair to work as light fades, and temperatures drop away.
And just as the dual purposed apple chopping blade has a sinister second role, you’ll notice that an old drip stand, (bought, I guess, years ago in a Malmesbury sale of used medical equipment), is pressed into unfamiliar service, for this end of life experience.
And there I sit, working my way round. Wing and tail feathers firmly pulled first, individually. Then the remainder in handfuls, stuffed as best I can manage into an old feed sack. Any zephyr sends the tiniest fibres drifting across the yard. And all the while the temperature falls away. The only sounds are the dusk time tecks and clicks of birds preparing for their night’s roost.
And then two weeks ago, the incongruity of the jangle of “O Sole Mio” (or ‘just one more Cornetto’), breaks the trance, from the village below, in the valley. Village name signs we may not now have, but Rhydcymerau still attracts an ice cream van in early December. And I later discover the English translation of the lyrics, includes the perhaps not so inappropriate lines – ‘When night comes and the sun has gone down’. As it gets still dimmer around 4.15 pm, the first twirrrr and whoosshhh, as waves of westward heading starlings fly directly over me, and the gently swinging carcase.
Fiona brings me a cup of tea, to keep me warm, as our bodies cool quickly, and as pink and red stains the sky, I’m finished.
This seems the right way to complete such a significant event.
The escaped feathers are quickly gathered and will end up composted in the reactor, returned to leaf mould-based compost within 2 months. And thence back into the earth.
The pale skinned, but dark legged bird will hang for 7 to 10 days before gutting. And now, with enough chances to experiment and hone taste experiences, I’ve come up with a recipe for Christmas to share with anyone who can obtain the gizzard, heart and liver from a free range, dry plucked turkey.
Cut the liver and heart into thin slices. Take the really muscular gizzard and open with a very sharp knife. It will have food, and maybe stones inside. Some of ours have undigested hazelnuts in there too. It has an incredibly tough yellow lining, but fortunately, this strips off easily in one pull and should be discarded. Slice the gizzard muscle, removing any really tough central fibrous bits, and then put the surrounding fat and any other fat from around the crop or inside the abdomen, into a small pan and place on a low heat. It will soon melt at which point you can add the liver, and heart.
Add a couple of small chopped dessert apples, 4 chopped dates, 1 tablespoon of calvados or brandy, 1 teaspoon of tomato puree, I small chopped leek, 2 tablespoons of mixed pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, about half a chopped walnut, 5 chopped sage leaves and half a fresh bay leaf. And a little salt (less than half a teaspoon). Let this all heat up, give an occasional stir, cover, and leave simmering for a couple of hours or so. Allow to cool a bit, then whizz in a blender until fairly smooth.
Before removing from the blender re taste and add more salt if needed. This will keep for about 7 days in a fridge, or can be frozen. It’s great spread on home made bread or as an addition to sauces or gravy to accompany turkey dishes. Or as canapes on some French toast.
Robins are constant company through the short days outside, around the turn of the year, though I’ve always found them camera shy – not having a telephoto lens, so needing to get fairly close to them. I guess that they find the big black lens trained on them a potential predatory threat. But this year, we’ve had a particularly interesting, and interested, red breasted companion. We’ve nicknamed him Red Robbo, (which rather dates us) after the communist Longbridge shop steward of the seventies. Perhaps, as you will read later, in deference to his powers of prophesy, we should have chosen a more respectful or benign moniker, and indeed some felt that Derek Robinson’s nickname was unfairly dreamed up by the press back in the ’70’s as an attempt to discredit him. Click here for more.
He even seemed to be listening to the thumping anthems of Absolute radio. This station has leavened progress and taken us back to earlier spells of decorating or DIY, when the same frequency with even a few of the original DJ’s, belted out 80’s or 90’s rock on 1215 MW as Virgin radio. Click here for an insight into the shifting sands of corporate media ownership in the UK, over the last 20 years. Now broadcast on DAB as well as old style analogue transmissions, Red Robbo clearly picked up some good vibrations from the stubby aerial he briefly perched on.
A week later, and after unloading our grocery delivery, Gareth the driver returned to the van to find Red Robbo happily flitting amongst the racking and trays of later drops. It took some gentle persuasion to encourage Robbo to stay at Gelli and not embark on a round robin (sorry) tour of Carmarthenshire.
Finally, the following day, a rustle from behind some sheets of Celotex at the back of the cart house, alerted us to the fact that Robbo was witnessing the deed when the last pre- Christmas turkey was killed, and later on, as I worked the carcase in a haze of snowy down, he was there – an orange blur as feather stubs were swapped for the camera.
As is my want, I looked up the folklore on robins inside houses, since although we’ve had many birds briefly trapped inside Gelli over the years we’ve never before had such frequent bird incursions by the same bird, as this year with Robbo. Swallows, wrens, other robins and on a disastrous occasion years ago, when we weren’t living here permanently, a pair of jackdaws, which had flown down the chimney. Before expiring from starvation, they’d managed to create a scene of complete devastation with bird droppings on every conceivable surface. I’d visited Gelli on my own during the foot and mouth epidemic, and it took most of my weekend to clear up the mess. I knew from the experience of a wren, briefly alighting on my gloved hand on 12th Night, (the day of wren hunts in Wales centuries ago) that strange synchronicities occur here from time to time.
I have to report that most of the information on robins entering into houses from centuries ago does not read well – it’s often taken as a sign that someone in the household will die within the year. In the American Welsh community, this was apparently reinforced by the case of a grandmother in Pennsylvania in 1898, (who was familiar with such superstitions), being so shocked by the sight of a robin flying into the house that she stood up and keeled over on the spot! Click here for more. We’re hoping that with far too many recent dealings or opening salvoes, as I like to consider them, with the National Health Service, the fact that Robbo was there for the turkey’s demise will satisfy the Welsh Gods, or whatever drives such mythology, desire for sacrifice.
Since an annoying small dark stain has also appeared, high on the gable wall lime hemp plaster, after much thought we decided that we could turn this into an appropriate memorial to our encounters with Red Robbo, who will otherwise likely leave us with no obvious trace, after just a year of sharing our house and garden with us – the average lifespan for the European Robin. For those unfamiliar with lime wash, in its damp state, any colour is significantly darker than when the surface is dry. So Fiona has created a stencilled Robbo, complete with red breast, and outlined by a modest circle of water impermeable PVA covered in base coat lime wash. The idea is that most of the time the robin will be pretty insignificant, but in periods of heavy rain, if the stain darkens as this small patch of plaster becomes damp, then Robbo will return to remind us of these special moments at the end of 2014. And allow us to boldly confront any local demons!
And on that cheery note, I wish anyone reading this before December 25th a happy and peaceful Christmas day, and for anyone reading it later, I hope that 2015 will be a happy, and interesting year for you. And if you have a robin hovering outside the door, desperate for some Christmas scraps, then consider serving them outside!
Just to be on the safe side.