With around 80% of British households tucking in to turkey on Christmas Day, Nick Mosley asks how did the bird come to dominate the festive table.
Your Christmas dinner is probably the most lavish meal you’ll prepare at home, with many more components than Sunday lunch. The main course itself is likely to include up to a dozen different vegetables, roast and mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and a host of sauces, and perhaps even a Yorkshire pudding or two creeps in. But the focus of the meal tends to be turkey – in the UK we eat around 10 million of them each Christmas.
Back in the medieval period, the main meats at the Christmas feast would be wild boar and venison, alongside native game birds particularly goose. Obviously rich landowners and the gentry had the best pickings, whilst the poor would make do with the offal and scraps which were no doubt still gratefully received winter sustenance.
Turkey is a fairly recent addition to the Christmas menu, originating as it does from North America. The bird had been domesticated by the native peoples of what is now Mexico and the USA, and brought over to Europe by the Spanish in the early 1500s. The first recorded appearance of turkey in England was in 1524, and anecdote says that the first English king to enjoy turkey for Christmas was Henry VIII.
So how did turkey come to dominate the table of the masses, and knock goose from the top spot? Firstly, turkey is a flocking bird so is relatively easy to farm in large numbers. Over the centuries, domestication has made it more docile – the North American wild turkey was notoriously cunning – allowing farmers in previous times to walk their flock to market.
Through selective breeding, the bird also provides significantly more meat than other widely eaten domesticated fowl. This means that female ‘hen’ turkeys tend to be artificially fertilised today as the much-prized white meat breast of the male ‘tom’ turkey is so large it’s usually impossible for natural breeding to take place.
Turkey only became a mainstream of the British Christmas table with the widespread introduction of refrigerators and freezers to homes after the Second World War. Frozen turkey is still the choice of many; once thawed it’s as fresh as the day it was killed although as its likely it was to a degree factory farmed, it’s not likely to have had the same life as turkeys that are sold fresh and tend to be free range and even organic thus offering more depth of flavour.
Remember whatever turkey you buy to make sure you store it according to instructions – a fresh turkey won’t safely last more than a couple of days in the fridge, and ensure you cook it thoroughly (75 degrees to kill any nasty bacteria) to avoid any festive tummy troubles. Now there’s an ideal stocking filler – a meat thermometer!