As published in the Irish Examiner on 2 October 2010.
“They’re rather…ugly,” said Scott, aka the husband, gazing intently at the pair of awkward-looking eight-week old turkeys that he had just wrestled from the boot of my car into their new home. All long legs, ruffled feathers and indignant hissing, they huddled together in the back corner. “We’ll have no problem eating such awful looking birds!” he added with satisfaction. Eighteen-month-old Hannah, fascinated with any animal that crosses her path, wanted to join them in the house but they were having none of it. A few squawks quickly saw her off and she was easily distracted with her regular playmates: the hens and cats. Thankfully, there would be no love lost there either. It’s a little early to be getting into “the turkeys have gone to help Santa get ready for Christmas” explanations.
Where did the idea of me keeping turkeys come from? It was a thought that had been floating in my mind since reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her book about a year spent living off the land in rural Appalachia. One of the things that most stuck in my mind was Kingsolver’s account of raising turkeys, including a cheerful account of the Harvest, her word for the day when turkeys are killed for Christmas.
At the time, though, I lived and worked in Dublin so the idea of raising a bird for the Christmas table was just a pipedream. And then my newly acquired Kiwi husband and I bought the cottage. A tiny two up, two down traditional Irish house in North Cork it came, much to our delight, with a half acre of land, although without luxuries such as central heating. We moved there in late 2007 and, after a lot of work out the back – the easiest way of keeping warm in the winter – we now have a veggie garden, several fruit trees, four lazy cats (supposedly to keep the rabbit population down), a trio of clucking hens and an animal-loving toddler. But the turkey idea was still there, floating in the back of my head, especially after a friend, Margaret O’Farrell, who keeps free-range pigs at Old Farm in North Tipperary, waxed lyrical about the home-raised bronze turkey that she cooked for Christmas dinner last year.
When I was a child, my Nana kept white turkeys in one of the farm outhouses for Christmas and I had hated them. Both the live ones – noisy, enormous and threatening to a little girl, quaking in her wellies – and the dead birds dangling from the rafters in the freezer room gave me nightmares. It didn’t stop me enjoying the Christmas dinner, though, and the flavour of Nana’s turkeys, roasted in the Aga, was incomparable. Childhood taste memories still in my head, I figured I was now big enough not to be intimidated by a bird of any size and started researching turkey rearing. What I read almost put me off completely. After having no problems with the hens, bar the occasional fox raid, turkeys seem like such delicate animals with a propensity towards many horrible diseases.
The bronze turkey, a well-flavoured variety, looked like my best option. Hardier and more suited to free ranging, they are a traditional breed that came to be replaced by the broad breasted white. That particular turkey was bred to put on weight fast and is particularly loved by commercial producers and people who demand plenty of white breast meat. The whites don’t get good press and there’s a famous story (perhaps apocryphal!) about them being so stupid that they could drown simply by looking up at the rain. They do come across as the kind of birds that lost any speck of intelligence that they may have had as their chests expanded, losing even the ability to procreate by themselves. No turkey sex for these big boys and girls, it’s got to be AI all the way.
I couldn’t get interested in keeping something so stupid, even for the pot, so opted to go bronze. I just needed a source of young turkeys, which I found near Newmarket. Just 20 years old, David Kelly has been breeding and selling a wide variety of hens, ducks, quail and other poultry for the last seven years. It looks like I’m not the only turkey-keeping hobbiest around as Kelly told me that his eight-week old turkeys are, ahem, flying out the door. “The people looking from two up to a half-dozen has doubled and trebled over the last two to three years,” he reckons. “They are sick of the shop turkey as they don’t know what they’re being fed or how they’re being treated.” Although the young bronze turkeys are more expensive than the whites (€15 as opposed to €8-10), that’s not a problem, according to David: “people don’t mind paying when the quality is good and the taste is nice.” €15 for a grow-your-own turkey doesn’t look too bad when put up against €60-80 for an oven-ready bronze.
A pair of bronze turkeys booked for the start of September, there was no expense wasted in sorting out their accommodation. A large wooden box that had once been home to a tractor engine, some weatherproof paint, a couple of wooden pallets and a bit of roofing felt: Scott, once more drawn into one of my schemes, came up trumps with a neat little wooden cabin for the back of the garden. The morning I went to pick up the turkeys, I left him sawing and nailing, Hannah handing over the hammer at regular, useless intervals and by the time I arrived home, turkeys starting to kick through the box in the boot, their home was ready.
After they had settled in for a few days we left them out for a wander, thinking – like our hens – they would have the intelligence to home at night. No such luck. They headed for the ditch and despite all Scott’s stalking efforts refused to return home. Fortunately my brainless duo survived that night’s downpour and the neighbourhood fox but next morning I set straight to work. With a few more pallets and some chicken wire I built an outside pen which is where they live now, with regular free-ranging forays into the wider world. It helps them to stay out of reach of Hannah’s grabbing hands and she can still gaze in at them. Everyone happy. Until it comes to house cleaning out time that is.
There’s no easy way of breaking this: turkeys poop constantly. It is a mercy, after time spent painstakingly scraping droppings off the base of their house (no thanks from them, of course, just more turkey hissing), to think that all this work is going towards a Very Good Christmas Dinner. For me, the leftovers are always the best bit. Just think (and I do as they hiss away): turkey and stuffing, on toast, with homemade cranberry relish below and a thick layer of melted Brie on top. These are the thoughts which will get me through wet and frosty mornings of watering and feeding, tedious house cleaning, and – hopefully – keep my resolve through the eventual Harvest.
It’s not too late to grow your own: David Kelly can be contacted at 087 7822232 and turkeys are also available for sale at marts and poultry fairs nationwide.