British Breeds Of Turkey
All authentic British turkey breeds, bred in Britain for hundreds of years, originally come from the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) which was imported from the Americas into England in the sixteenth century. Other European and North American countries have also developed their own breeds, and some of these new strains have been imported into Britain at various times, but they also originate from the wild turkeys of the Americas.
The Aztec’s, in what is now Mexico, were the first people to domesticate the wild Turkey, and the Spanish were the first explorers to bring them back to Europe. While in Britain, over the last 450 years, we have selectively bred a number of popular varieties of British Turkeys from these first imported birds; radically altering it from the first wild species to be bigger and heavier, in order to produce more white meat.
Note: The meat on any poultry is termed either brown meat (from the legs) or white meat (from the breast). Turkey’s have been selectively bred over the many generations to have very large breast meat.
Since the 1930s turkey production in the United Kingdom has been transformed from a small scale, seasonal activity, catering exclusively for the Christmas market with older breeds, to an intensive mass production sector dominated by all year round producers looking to maximise profits with new breeds and processed foods.
One imagines selective breeding being done over a long period of time, but it can happen much more rapidly than that. A modern variation in the genetic strain of the British turkey comes in the intensively farmed ones, those bred since the 1950’s. The Broad-Breasted White (bred from the White Holland and Broad-Breasted Bronze) all have white feathers and were selectively bred to not only be bigger but to only have white feathers, rather than the original dark coloured feathers of those breeds closer to the wild turkey.
This was so that any pin feathers and marks left in the skin after plucking are less visible when the bird is sold on to be cooked. This it was felt by the breeding farmers made the bird more attractive and presentable to the customer, and the new supermarkets springing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s encouraged this belief by only stocking this cheaper variety.
The switch in the twentieth century to the Broad-Breasted White was also hastened by this strain being very adaptable to selective breeding programs, it also matured quicker and it was able to withstand the new commercially intensive farming techniques being introduced. As a consequence the older variety of turkeys stopped being reared by farmers: declining in numbers to such an extent that these heritage turkeys had become a ‘rare-breed’ by the 1980’s.
Two of the most famous old breeds were the Norfolk Bronze, and the Norfolk Black, the traditional Georgian and Victorian turkey. However they are now making a comeback (particularly the Norfolk Bronze) as the buying public becomes more educated about the food they buy.
Although the much cheaper intensively bred Broad-Breasted White still out sells the Norfolk Bronze by a big margin, (almost 95% of all turkeys sold are The White) people are now more concerned with animal welfare, traceability of local food sources and eating more flavoursome ingredients, (and this means eating meat reared without cruelty, without the use of growth hormones, and without any added brine).
The modern caged or closed-barn Turkey can live an incredibly cruel and horrendous existence within the intensively bred farming industry, the meat also tastes bland, with nearly all the taste bred out of it, (for the last 60 years gaining size was all that mattered to the big farming corporations and supermarkets). Now the curry made from the leftover turkey on Boxing Day is the best bit of eating the bird.
However, things are slowly changing, with more people willing to pay extra at Christmas and buy the older, (free-range) British rare-bread variety of turkey, like the Norfolk Black or Bronze, which has so much better taste, and is raised in much healthier conditions.
British Breeds: These are, The Norfolk Black, The Norfolk Bronze, The Buff, The Pied, The Blue, The Slate, The Fawn and of course the modern strain of The White. We also now have the North American heritage Bourbon Red which is becoming popular. The older breeds tend to do better outside than the commercial strains (some of whom are so big they can no longer walk or mate); the heritage breeds are very hardy, totally impervious to the cold and prefer to roost outside. And all turkeys taste better when allowed to roam free and eat grass, supplemented with corn.
Note: To find out more about the standards of turkeys farmed and to find farmers who have won awards contact The Poultry Club, founded in 1877. It is a registered charity existing to safeguard the interests of all pure and traditional breeds of poultry including chickens, bantams, ducks, geese and turkeys. If in the US have a look at the site SSPA: Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.
To read more on the subject of modern commercialisation of turkey production in the UK read, John Martin’s paper (2009). ‘The Commercialisation of British Turkey Production’, Rural History, 20, pp 209-228.
Turkey And Its Associations With Christmas
When did the turkey first become associated with Christmas? The short answer is that turkeys became associated with Christmas almost as soon as they were introduced into Britain in the sixteenth century (1500s). The longer answer needs to consider when the turkey became synonymous with Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day.
It is easy to dismiss roast turkey as a modern phenomenon at Christmas and write an article on why we should be eating roast goose or roast beef instead; whilst this is true for the family roast dinner on Christmas Day, it is not true for its associations of turkey being eaten and served at Christmas time.
Turkey and Christmas have over 400 years of history together – with this close association culminating in the last 60 years when turkey became the national and ‘traditional’ Christmas Dinner for the general population of the UK; but this goal has been reached by walking a steady path towards it, a path this nation has been on for hundreds of years. So it should come as no surprise that this is how we have ended up.
When comparing through history the price of a turkey, verses the weekly wage of the working classes, and the slow uptake of breeding turkeys by the small-holder, it is simple to explain why for most people the turkey was never the ‘traditional’ roast on Christmas Day; until prices dropped in real terms during the 1950s. For the majority of people, and for hundreds of years, it was always the cheaper Roast Chicken, Roast Goose, Roast Beef or Roast Rabbit on Christmas Day, (if they could afford anything at all).
Even in the mid part of the twentieth-century Dorothy Hartley wrote in her book ‘Food In England’ (1954) that “Being a north-country woman, I have no enthusiasm for turkey … Northern farmers have … a fine meaty goose for Christmas.” And this was true over much of Britain, but the mid 1950s was actually the tipping point away from other meats to turkey on Christmas day, hence Dorothy Hartley is prepared to comment in her book, (negatively) on this change towards Turkey for Christmas dinner.
Yet to place Turkey and Christmas together at the 1950s, as if this was a seismic event, is to ignore all the other evidence which indicates strongly that turkey meat has always been a traditional Christmas food – just not the main one. And historically the bond between Christmas and the turkey is intricately linked because of the natural life-cycle of the turkey.
Following the natural (and seasonal) course of events the courtship of a turkey generally begins at the end of March and early April – when the hens lay one fertile egg per day, (a normal ‘clutch’ is 12 eggs laid). After the fertile clutch is laid the turkey hens begin the process of incubation. Incubation is only started after the entire clutch of eggs is laid, therefore most eggs hatch at the same time, in 26 to 28 days – and turkey poults, born in the late spring, grow to full maturity seven months later in December.
And as for choice: it is the same reasons for people today (choosing to have a turkey for Christmas dinner) as to why the turkey replaced the swan and other big birds at banquets in the Tudor period (for the upper classes). The impressive size of a whole bird in relation to a chicken, duck or goose, or other smaller cuts of meat (from larger animals) makes it more of a special, celebratory occasion. Yet why did it gain so quickly in popularity after the 1950s? Alone out of all the choices, when considering cost or price per pound of meat, the amount of meat on one turkey can now cheaply feed an extended family (with friends invited) – without the modern, intensive breeding practices being introduced this was never previously the case.
We tend to over look the obvious sometimes, or just accept it without question. A celebration is about doing something special, on a special occasion, a feast is about serving something special, something uncommon – combining these events you have what were termed feast days. And feast days reach back far into history; falling on important days associated with the changing seasons. In times gone by there were several such feast days in the year, secular ones (the Harvest Festival, May Day etc.) and religious ones (Easter, All Saints Day etc.) but none more important to the common man than the celebrations in the winter period over the winter solstice, (before and after the church appropriated this pagan celebration for their own design).
Today (in the western world) most of the secular and religious feast days have fallen away, as most of us no longer follow the strict codes of religious doctrine, telling us what we can and cannot eat during the year; and with refrigeration, global supply links and 24 hour supermarket shopping the idea of a scarcity or lack of diversity of food in our diets in the winter period simply does not exist – there is no longer a need to celebrate the production of food.
Christmas however is the one time of the year that still comes anywhere near close to how we used to celebrate; even though it has been subverted by commercialisation (if you let it) it is still a feast day – one of the last remaining to us in an ever-growing secular western society. And that means on this particular day, more so than any other, food plays a major role in how we celebrate. And a very large, whole roast turkey has come to symbolize for us a special food (uncommonly served to the table for the rest of the year) served on a special day (a unique time where we all focus on feeding extended family and friends).