Some people will eat any old muck at Christmas. The Caribbean island of Dominica echoes to the slurping of tripe soup. The Inuits of northern Greenland treat themselves to kiviak, made by sewing hundreds of auks inside a seal skin and burying the lot for up to 18 months, after which the birds’ heads are bitten off and their guts squeezed out. In the UK, the undiscriminating can tuck into a pizza topped with chicken, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Asda, the supermarket behind this abomination, describes it as “a festive feast with none of the fuss”.
So you may be feeling smug if you’re planning to cook turkey. This is a bird that for centuries has represented taste and luxury in British cuisine. First brought to the country in the 16th century, and said to have been enjoyed by Henry VIII, turkey was a rich person’s food, replacing peacock at royal banquets and eventually goose in commoners’ Christmases.
As recently as the 1930s, one bird cost as much as a week’s wages. Even today, when Iceland flogs frozen turkeys for just three quid a kilo, you could still spend six times as much on something fresh and free range. When a single piece of poultry can cost £100 or more, splashing out says that you are serious about Christmas, about good food, about showing your friends and family a good time. It’s not just the money. Even if you don’t brine your bird, which can add another half-day to the process, you could spend seven or eight hours prepping and cooking a turkey and everything that goes with it. Because, of course, turkey isn’t turkey without the trimmings – at the very least stuffing, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets and overcooked brussels sprouts, and ideally also roast parsnips and carrots, red cabbage, gravy and/or bread or cranberry sauce.
I come from a big family, and my mother believed in feeding us until we couldn’t move. She would set the alarm and start Christmas dinner at 5am. Was it worth it? To a child who’d get three more hours in bed, yes. Her turkey was always tasty and moist, fragrant with sausagemeat-and-onion stuffing. The leftovers lingered for ages, but eating them never felt like a chore.
I’m in my 50s now, and a few years ago I was lucky enough to marry a woman just like dear old Mum (at least where poultry skills are concerned). But between these two marvellous women I spent decades in the wilderness, always eating turkey at least once over Christmas in a spirit of nostalgia and affection, but never sure what awaited me. Throughout my 20s, 30s and 40s, I had at least as many dull dishes as brilliant ones, in pubs, canteens, restaurants and friends’ homes. Perhaps because turkeys grow so fast, their flesh is often bland, or tainted by the suspect substances they are fattened on. Because they are so huge, and everyone is terrified the legs will be undercooked, the white meat is often dry. There are ways round this, not least hacking up the bird and cooking the legs separately, but that feels like cheating. And so we carry on, following the letter of Christmas hospitality but not its spirit.
Let’s be honest: a lot of us can’t cook turkey, but insist on doing it all the same. We’d be better off making something more forgiving but still fancy, like rabbit in cider, or slow-cooked shoulder of pork, or even a Christmas favourite from another country, such as bigos or baeckeoffe. I’m not letting myself off the hook here: I’m a decent cook, but I’ve never tackled a whole turkey, mainly because I suspect I’d make a balls-up of it.
I don’t think I’m particularly fussy, or that I’ve had uniquely bad luck. Take a close look at the adverts for Christmas food, and the horribly desiccated-looking birds suggest that even professional chefs and food stylists struggle to turn out something palatable.
So, here’s my suggestion. The die is cast this year. If you’re planning to cook turkey on the 25th, you’ll already have the bird, the brussels, the bacon, the bangers and so on. Ask yourself honestly if your past attempts have been up to scratch. If they haven’t, do some research. Find a recipe you like, from a cook you trust, and give it one last go. Once your turkey is in the oven, watch it like a hawk. Baste it like mad; do whatever it takes to stop the breast from drying out. Ask your parents for tips if you have happy memories of childhood meals and you’re still lucky enough to have them with you. And then, when the bird is ready to serve, judge it as if it had been cooked by a stranger, and all you could taste was the flesh and not the effort that went into the cooking. This is probably the most important meal you’ll cook all year. Did you make a good job of it? And if the answer’s no … for god’s sake, give up. Let someone else take a turn in the kitchen next year, or try something different.
Not kiviak, obviously. Have you seen the price of auks?