Good life for the star of the season

by Andy Bryenton

When people mention a traditional Christmas dinner, they are often talking about the fare of the Northern Hemisphere, where winter reigns during the festive season. In ancient times, this banquet would have contained things like whole roasted lambs and suckling pigs, hams, baked fruit pies, and even the ubiquitous pudding. But one addition to the traditional board has come to us from across the Atlantic, and found its way to New Zealand.

It is, of course, the Turkey — Meleagris gallopavo, a bird first domesticated not by the Pilgrim Fathers but by the Mayans, more famous for their step pyramids and golden burial treasures than their hearty roast dinners.

Turkey plays a big role in the American tradition of Thanksgiving, but it’s also a centrepiece for the Christmas family meal, and its popularity comes not just from its ability to feed a multitude of relatives around the table. Some of the best birds raised in New Zealand come from not far down the road from Christchurch, just off the Rakaia highway between Fairton and Chertsey — and what they’re famous for is their flavour. 

Being delicious doesn’t happen overnight. The completely free-range flock at Croziers Turkeys enjoy a life far removed from that of many other commercial poultry and there’s no denying that the proof of that free-roaming existence is there in the taste.

Turkeys in the wild are foraging birds which move in large groups, inquisitively pecking and upturning scrub just as their early ancestors in Mexico’s Yucatan region did. So it goes with the flock on the Croziers’ farm — owners Kyle and Monique Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. Their commitment to the welfare of their birds and the quality evidenced in their delicious flavour extends to insisting on milling their own feed, using organic processing methods and insisting on no additives at all. What comes out of the oven for Christmas day — and, we must stress, any time of year you’d like a delicious roast — is all turkey.

In their natural habitat, from the forests of coastal Mexico all the way up to the temperate climes of the atlantic northeast, turkeys like to enjoy the sunshine, forage, and form a communal bond with their flock mates. The colourful males with their distinctive wattles and ‘snoods’ — the technical term for the crimson, fleshy protuberance which hangs above the male turkey’s beak — take the lead in looking out for predators, while the whole flock create dust baths in which they keep clean. This natural behaviour is facilitated on the Croziers Turkeys’ farm as well, with the timetable of breeding, hatching and laying set up to give the birds as long as possible out in good weather. 

The good life comes out as good taste in the finished product. Wild turkeys are prey for a variety of land carnivores in their natural range, from the coyote to the bear, but in New Zealand these birds meet a thoroughly humane end, and are celebrated by becoming the centrepiece of some of our most important culinary celebrations. To really bring out the best in your turkey, chefs recommend selecting free range — naturally — and gently thawing your bird until it’s at room temperature before proceeding to the optional step of brining your turkey. This involves submerging the whole uncooked bird in a salty brine, with added bay leaves, thyme and garlic to taste. Those who prefer this method suggest that the brine should be as salty as sea water, and that the turkey should remain in a sealed cooking pot of brine overnight prior to roasting.

Stuffing is a personal preference, and secret recipes, family favourites and new fusion ideas abound. Remember that even when stuffed a turkey has less fat than a chicken, so keeping a little water in the roasting pan throughout the cooking process — less time consuming than you might think, at roughly 31/2 hours for a seven kilo bird. The temptation to tuck in will be strong, but letting the turkey rest for approximately a quarter hour before carving will make it even more succulent.

From halfway around the world to a prime place on the Christmas table, the turkey has come a long way. Easy to prepare, seasonally traditional and undeniably tasty, there’s no excuse not to make this big hearty bird the star of your family get together. For many more recipes and tips, visit the local turkey pros at croziersturkeys.co.nz/preparation-tips — and have a cracker Christmas.