In true festive spirit, The Olive Press has decided to give The Amputee a week off. Here, his companion The Gobbler muses on what Christmas means to him
BY the time this edition of the Olive Press hits the stands many of my relatives will be heading for temporary accommodation in your fridges. After a few days stay at zero degrees, they will be stuffed with various goodies, have their skin basted with oils and unguents and then get unceremoniously shoved in your ovens. And just as we were getting over Thanksgiving! I am not lamenting our fate, hear, because this is the way of the world and what can a mere turkey do to change matters? If things had been different, maybe it would have been us sitting down twice a year to roast people and all the trimmings.
Turkeys have always been popular and not only for our tender, white flesh. If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, it would have been us and not the Ol’ Bald Eagle that adorned the seal of the United States of America. Ben thought the eagle “a bird of bad moral character, like those among men who live by sharping and robbing. The eagle is generally poor and often lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America.” We must have had a bad PR agency at the time because the eagle got the top job and we got dubious honour of being eaten on festive occasions.
Although turkeys were all over the place when the first Pilgrims hit the rock at Plymouth, we were not true natives, whatever Ben thought. My forefathers had emigrated up from Mexico. We were “true original natives of America” if America is taken in its broader sense, referring to the New World as a whole, not solely to the United States. There were no border controls in those days, except for the Apache, and we were able to settle all over North America without worrying about visas and Green Cards. We are found wild no-where else in the world but America.
There has been all sort of misinformation spread about us birds and, contrary to some famous beliefs, we never made it to the Old World until relatively modern times. Probably the Norsemen who had settlements in North America from 985AD to 1121AD were the first people to take us over to Europe. Our image certainly appears on the border of the famous Bayeux Tapestry which dates from about 1087 but the Normans probably ate the models after they had finished the rug. Five hundred more years were to pass before you could readily get a turkey sandwich, white meat or dark, in Paris or London.
Our records do not show who carried the first substantial numbers of us to Europe but it certainly was not Christopher Columbus. Being rather heavy creatures, we do not fly as well as we might and even the fittest of us tire after a mile or so. As Signor Columbus only got as far as the Caribbean islands he never met any of our kin. The first Spaniards to reach the mainland would certainly have noticed us and apparently one of them, a nobleman and poultry dealer called Miguel de Passamonte, sent ten of us back to the Bishop of Valencia in 1511. But it was Bernal Diaz, who accompanied Cortez to Mexico, who left the first real written records of my family. In 1517, Diaz visited the great Aztec market in Tlatelolco and reported: “They were selling fowls and birds, as big as peacocks, with great hanging dewlaps.” He later reported “pre-prepared” turkey dishes could be purchased in Mexican markets, including the characteristic recipe of turkey with chocolate mole sauce – a dish that they still eat in Mexico today.
Montezuma, the last Aztec king, had turkeys cooked daily for his table; not that it did him a lot of good when Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors decided on a regime change in the early 16th century.
Probably the biggest mistake us turkeys made was to be too good-natured and to trust human serial killers all too easily. Had we had a lousy disposition like the buzzard or the bald eagle maybe they might have left us alone. Instead, we were easily tamed by the Aztecs and later by anyone who gave us a bed and something to eat. In Europe, we were first raised in monasteries in Spain and then some of us were transferred to another monastery in Bourges, France. This started the rot and by the middle of the 1500s we were all over Europe; well, all over the menus anyway. We displaced the peacock as holiday fare in Italy and drove the goose off the table in Britain. We were better value for your florin and guilder and much tastier than those two feathered dandies.
A sad fact though is that our wild relatives were much better to eat than those of us who were bred and raised on farms. “Wild turkey has much more taste than its barnyard counterpart,” wrote James de Coquet. He continued: “Fed on berries and insects it has an ivory flesh which guards all the perfumes of the forest.” Monsieur Brillat-Savarin agreed and advised: “Those who raise turkeys should give them as much freedom as possible and take them into the fields and the woods to increase their flavour and bring them as close as possible to the original species.” Now, that would have been sensible but, unfortunately, his advice was ignored. Our future was to be cages in conveyor-belt farms and factories where we were fed on fish-meal, filled up with hormones and antibiotics and genetically altered. It used to be big turkeys with high breastbones that were sought for the table but modern life and small ovens have seen a much reduced, flat-chested breed developed. Our modern flesh now bears little resemblance to the wonderful gamey flavour of our forefathers.
It is not all bad news though and a skilled cook can still make a lot out of modern turkeys by careful cooking, creative stuffings and good gravy. If you are going to roast one of us for Xmas, remember we do not have a lot of fat on us like the goose and can easily dry out. First thing to remember is to take the bird out of the fridge well before it is due to go in the oven: we should be at room temperature before cooking. Put the bird breast-down in the roasting tray as the only real fat deposits we have are in our backs. This will allow the fat to slowly melt and percolate through the breast meat during cooking.
After an initial browning in a hot oven we should be covered in pork fat or bacon to keep us moist during our long cooking. Remember our drumsticks take longer to cook than our much-reduced white breast meat.
Talking turkey, here is a great recipe for your bird and a few hints on how
to achieve a lovely golden exterior with a moist, succulent flesh. For this
recipe we go breast-side up.
One turkey, about eight kilos
Two large oranges, cut into halves
1/2 pound (225 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Paprika, to taste
Four tablespoons olive oil
Bread and sausage stuffing with apples (recipe follows)
1. Make the stuffing.
2. Wash the turkey well, chop off the wing tips then dry inside and out with paper towels.
3. Squeeze the juice from the two oranges all over the outside and rub in the cavity to freshen. Salt and pepper the cavity to taste. Fill the turkey with the stuffing but do not pack it too tightly. Sew up the cavity or close with small trussing skewers.
4. Rub the outside of the turkey all over with most of the butter (reserve about three tablespoons) mixed with the olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and paprika. Drape the turkey with cheesecloth and place on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side up.
5. About four hours before you want to eat, heat the oven up to 325 degrees (170 Celsius or gas mark three). A turkey of eight kilos will need about three and a half to four hours cooking.
6. Roast for about three hours, lifting the cheesecloth and basting the flesh every twenty minutes or so, first with the butter and olive oil, later with the bird’s own juices. For a moist bird, frequent basting is essential. After three hours pierce the thigh with a skewer. There should be no trace of pinkness and the juices should run yellow. The drumstick must move easily in its socket. A smaller bird should be tested earlier.
7. When the turkey is done, discard the cheesecloth, remove to a heated platter and cover with aluminium foil. The bird should stand for about thirty minutes before carving.
Bread and sausage stuffing
Eight tablespoons of butter
Two cups of finely chopped onions
Three tart apples (i.e Granny Smiths), cored and chunked but not peeled
400 grams of lightly seasoned sausages
Three cups of crumbled wholemeal bread
Three cups of crumbled white bread
One teaspoon of dried sage and one of dried thyme
One third of a cup of chopped parsley
One cup of shelled pistachio nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt half the butter in a pan and add the chopped onion and cook over a low
heat until tender and lightly coloured. Then transfer to a large mixing bowl.
2. Melt the remaining butter in the same pan and add the apple chunks. Cook on
a high heat until lightly coloured but not mushy. Add to the onions.
3. Remove the skin from the sausages and crumble into the pan, cooking over a medium heat until lightly browned.
4. Transfer sausage meat to the bowl using a slotted spoon and add the remaining ingredients to those already in the bowl and mix gently. Leave to cool before stuffing the turkey.
I wish you all a very merry festive season and I am sorry that I will not be joining you at the groaning board on Christmas Day. I do not think I would enjoy eating Uncle Bill.