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It’s not really Christmas without a turkey…

It’s not really Christmas without a turkey…

Drew McKenzie of Robert Alexander Butchers in Port Glasgow takes a butcher’s look at the most important dinner of the year

3i. Autumn Shot (Medium)

Let’s face it, when it comes to Christmas dinner, despite the occasional notion that we might have beef this year, or a leg of lamb perhaps, or even a goose, we always tend to go back to turkey.

 

Prior to the Second World War, turkeys were not big business in Scotland. In fact Christmas itself was not big business in Scotland with the national tendency being to focus on the New Year.

 

Those who did choose turkey for their festive celebration at that time would be eating a bird quite different from today’s offering. Turkeys still had a bit to go before they would benefit from a selective breeding programme that would contribute to plumping up that all-important breast meat.

 

The turkey boom really started in the fifties. They became big business at about the same time Christmas was welcoming commercialisation.

 

I remember my late Grandfather, Bob Alexander, telling me that he and his boss at the time, Andrew Mackenzie, would drive round the farms of Blairgowrie looking for stock in the cold of winter. They were garbed out with car coats, gloves, soft hats and with hessian rusk sacks around their ankles to keep warm – cars did not have heaters in those days.

 

The turkeys gathered in those far off parts were eventually delivered to Greenock to be both slaughtered and dressed in the family’s shop. I’d love to see the Environmental Health Officer’s faces if we tried that nowadays.

 

Then those turkeys would be hung from their ankles throughout the shop with all their heads folded up in the same direction and resting on a wing. The feathers would be left on the neck and on the wings. The featured display to the meat purist would be a thing of impressive beauty; it would create a special atmosphere in the shop…a sense of occasion.

 

Many would suggest that the modern consumer would balk at such a display and they might be right. One thing is certain though most modern butchers would balk at the idea of having to clean all those birds out.

 

Yes, Christmas turkeys have become a much more sanitised affair than they once were. The early 70s brought the boom in frozen birds courtesy, in no small way, of Mr Bernard Mathews and his contemporaries. These birds were prepared throughout the year and their quality wasn’t great. They were pumped with all sorts of buttery chemicals that the marketing people told us was for self basting and then loads of extra water was frozen into them for additional manufacturer’s profit. You can still buy this type of bird all the year round from the supermarket. It is said that they glow in the dark.

 

The next type of bird to hit the market was the fresh frozen or dry frozen bird. These were well received by the trade and tended not to leave the same mess when thawing them out.

 

People’s attitudes to what they were eating were starting to change, however. Freshness was becoming all important and many were prepared to pay a premium to get what they wanted. Vacuum packing and gas flushing allowed a new market for “fresh oven ready” to develop and this is still the predominant type of bird offered for the Christmas trade.

 

But you must beware. Just because a bird is described as “fresh” or even as “free range” it doesn’t, in any way, mean that this is the best you can buy. Free range only tells you that your particular wee bird lived half its life with the front door open. It doesn’t tell you what the hoose was like, how many lived in it or what they had for their tea every night. Be careful with free range.

 

Over the past ten years or so we have seen the strong emergence of the ultra premium turkey led by the likes of Kelly Turkeys and Copas and this is where the discerning consumer is now heading.

 

It’s a bit about provenance, it’s a bit about welfare, and it’s a lot about confidence. Confidence that what is being put on the table is the best it can possibly be and the difference between these birds and the mass produced variety is quite staggering.

 

These new favourites are slow maturing, they live a long, happy life trooping about cherry orchards until the time comes to kick off their slippers and lay down their pipe.

 

They live about three times longer than their intensive cousins and get by nicely on their cereal diet without having to scoff any of those nasty growth promoters.

 

And when at last they depart this mortal coil they don’t just dive into a polythene bag right away. They hang around for a couple of weeks to mature like all good game birds should. Then, when the time is right, they climb gently into their sturdy wee box with their cooking instructions and their wee pop-up thermometer and their sprig of rosemary and they say hello to the cranberry sauce, the gravy, the stuffing and the chipolatas.

 

A turkey Christmas the way it should be.