Which is most delicious for festive feasting?
Eleanor Doughty in defence of the goose
Ding ding ding! The Christmas birds are in the ring. Goose or turkey? I know whose corner I’m in: the goose. Or, as we call it in my family, the long-necked chicken. This, of course, began as a classic parental ruse, and it’s stuck. It’s not that I don’t like turkey – no, in our house, we always have a variety of meats on the menu, despite usually being only three or four for Christmas each year. One year, there were more meats than people. But despite the luscious cuts of beef, ham and venison, and the mega turkeys that our kitchen has seen, it’s always going to be goose for me. I like to think she’s a bit cooler, somehow more refined – the underdog, if you like. And that’s as good a reason as any to back goose all the way to Boxing Day. (Read how to cook the perfect goose.)
It wasn’t always just a case of popping down to the farm shop for your goosey gander. Working-class Victorians could join a ‘goose club’, a savings organisation run by pub landlords where one could put a shilling towards a goose every week to save up for a tasty bird. When it was time to collect your goose, those who had paid into the club would go to the pub to claim their meat, their names being drawn from a hat. The goose would be taken home and prepared for cooking, before being taken to the bakers for roasting. On Christmas morning, the baker would see a queue assembled of those collecting their prize. Charles Dickens might have popularised the turkey in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, but I prefer to read his description of the family’s original goose as a superb modern-day advertisement for the delicious beast: “Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.”
Today, there’s no need to join a goose club, but for those who wonder about value for money – since there is invariably less meat on a goose than on a same-size turkey – cooking a goose at Christmas gives you something back in return. Namely, a jar of goose fat ready to go in the fridge and on to your roast potatoes for the next year.
The mighty goose does take some cooking, but I prefer to see this as a culinary challenge, rather than a downside. Putting it on a rack is essential to allow the fat to drain away. In our house, the goose is cooked first, while everything else is being prepared, so that the cook’s full attention can be on it. In this way, it’s more of a cook’s meat than a turkey is – more of a watched pot, a bird requiring patience.
That it is estimated that only about 250,000 geese are eaten every Christmas in the UK compared with the nine million or so turkeys just shows a lack of imagination, rather than anything else. Turkey is the obvious choice, sure. Goose, in my book, is the elegant one, the more romantic, old-world option. It brings a vintage feel to the Christmas table, which, while not a prerequisite, brings a nice flavour, quite literally, to proceedings. Plus, it’s hard to find goose for 11 months of the year, making it a proper treat. Turkey, however, is happily hanging out on our shelves all year round. In that sense, goose is more exclusive, more longed-for and simply far more delicious. Plus, there’s something quite wonderful about asking if anyone wants a goose sandwich, carbonara or crispy pancake. Mine’s a stir fry, please.
Charlotte Mackaness in defence of the turkey
Do you brine your turkey before roasting? Cook it upside down, perhaps, or maybe even lay it on a bed of buttered ciabatta? Regardless of the method, dissecting secret family recipes, swapping theories and comparing results are all part of the traditions surrounding roast turkey: the nation’s best-loved Christmas dinner. Turkey’s position as the pre-eminent festive fowl is well deserved. It is served at Christmas tables across the land, including that of the Royal Family. At Sandringham, it is said everyone from the monarch to the staff enjoys turkey with the traditional stuffings, parsnips and, of course, Brussels sprouts. And, dare I say, this is where turkey sometimes falls victim to an illogical, snobby disdain displayed by some for anything hugely popular. (Read The Field’s list of the best Christmas puddings – with no stirring required.)
Henry VIII was the first monarch to put turkey on the Christmas menu. He was, as we know, someone who didn’t give a fig about what most people thought. However, there was nothing commonplace about turkeys back then. They only arrived from the New World in the mid-16th century, and remained a rarity on menus until the Victorian era. One of the turkey’s great attributes is that a single bird can feed a large number of people relatively inexpensively, and this certainly appealed to the Victorians, with their big families. Turkey’s huge rise in popularity in the 19th century also made an impact on culinary language. We have the Victorians to thank for words such as ‘drumstick’ and the use of ‘white’ and ‘dark’ to describe meat. All were invented to avoid anything as scandalous as having to utter the words ‘breast’ or ‘lower leg’ in public.
Whether you’re a breast or leg lover, turkey has sufficient meat for everyone. It is also one of the healthiest meats, being extremely lean but also rich in protein, with just enough fat for a deliciously crispy skin. Fast-twitch muscle is something more usually associated with Olympic sprinters than fowl, but turkeys are surprisingly athletic. In the wild, they are said to be able to fly short distances at speeds up to 50mph. On land, they’ve been recorded whizzing along at 12mph, and they are also very effective swimmers.
Domesticated turkeys have been selectively bred and their top-heavy appearance might put paid to this kind of avian triathlon. Nonetheless, in the 19th century, birds from East Anglia would undertake a three-month walk to London to be sold fresh for Christmas. There are descriptions of turkeys wearing little boots to shield their feet, although in all likelihood the drovers covered them in sacking or tar for protection. (Where to buy the best Christmas turkeys.)
From Dickens and Dafoe to Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley, turkey is an indispensable part of British Christmas culture. As are the turkey leftovers. For many, Boxing Day just wouldn’t feel so festive without turkey sandwiches or a turkey curry. One of the criticisms commonly levelled at turkey is that it can be dry. The same can be said of any roast. Haven’t we all spent a small fortune at the butcher for the best cut of beef, followed the cooking instructions painstakingly and it has still ended up as tough as leather? And this is the beauty of turkey: should it be a little dry, nobody will notice amid the bread sauce, pigs in blankets, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Delicious.