Whether it’s a choice led by taste or tradition, turkey will be the meat taking pride of place on most festive dinner tables this week.
And at Whirlow Hall Farm in Sheffield, staff have been busy rearing the perfect birds for families in the city to tuck into on Christmas Day. The farm believes that little can rival a locally-sourced, free-range turkey - an antidote to the disappointing, factory-farmed specimens that lurk in some supermarket freezers.
Sam Trepte, Whirlow’s commercial operations manager, is in charge of making sure the farm’s seasonal food operation runs smoothly.
Naturally, preparations begin well in advance.
“Turkey for most people is something to start thinking about in early December but for us in the business of rearing or selling the birds it’s a subject that we’re thinking about all year round,” said Sam.
“The debrief from the previous year happens in January, and trying to work out trends for different weights and varieties for the forthcoming flock starts there.”
The poults - or baby turkeys - arrive at the farm in September.
“They are scrawny looking things and don’t have the plumage and flappy facial skin that you would recognise from TV images,” said Sam.
This skin is actually known as ‘snoods and wattle’ - snoods being the long piece hanging from the beak, and wattle the piece hanging from the neck.
“Their time with us is crucial,” Sam added.
“Their diet is a mix of fattening pellets, and additions like oregano oil, which we use to manage the flavour and conditioning, or fat coverage.”
Clearly, too much fat will result in an unpleasantly oily bird, whereas not enough fat will produce dry, bland meat - something not even extra lashings of gravy will fully disguise.
When the Sheffield Telegraph visited the farm, the Norfolk Black turkeys were still strutting merrily in their field in the open air. But come the third week in December, life’s realities must be faced up to and the birds meet their end.
The killing and dressing of the birds is ‘always an intensely busy time’, Sam reflected. The task involves many of the volunteers and staff - those who are willing to take part, at any rate.
“All the time this is taking place the rest of the farm still needs tending to,” he pointed out. “Cows, sheep and pigs still need feeding among the other jobs which don’t take two weeks off for Christmas, so it does create an immensely busy few weeks.
“The work that goes into each bird to make it oven-ready is huge, and probably passes an average consumer by on Christmas Day as they are tucking in.”
Birds are hung ‘long-legged’ for a short period to relax the meat. Then, after the bird is dressed, it’s a race to deliver it to the Christmas table in pristine condition.
All of this ‘has to happen safely’ in chilled spaces and during all hours of the day, Sam said, to ensure the birds do not develop any unwanted bugs which bring the risk of food poisoning. The farm reared 100 turkeys this year, and hopes to increase the number to 150 next year.
“Walkers and visitors to the farm can see the birds out in the fields and the condition the birds are in, so they can see just how well we care for them,” said Sam.
“Put simply, there aren’t any shortcuts to be had here and I think our patrons know that, which hopefully comes across in the flavour of the birds. Ultimately, we know the work will pay off and come Christmas Day we can raise a glass knowing we have put the best bird possible on the plates of hundreds of Sheffield families.”