NATURE NOTES -Talking turkey

THE family was sat around the dinner table the other night planning our Christmas Day feast when we got to chatting about turkey and how a non native bird has become such a main part of the festivities (I put it down to the late Bernard Mathews and his ‘bootiful’ advertising).

What happened to our traditional native fare? Turkeys naturally come from America and only got to Europe after the discovery of that continent in the late 15th century.

So turkey would not have been on the Christmas menu of anybody in England before then. The rich would have feasted on goose and, with the king’s permission, swan.

If they could be caught, woodcock would also be eaten – although there’s not much meat on them and it would take a good half dozen to fill a belly!

To make a roast bird look even tastier, medieval cooks used to cover the cooking bird with butter and saffron which would give the cooked bird a golden colour by the time it was served.

However, if the poor could afford it, the Church had a fixed price of 7 old pennies for a ready cooked goose.

An uncooked goose would cost 6 pennies - about a day’s wages.

Venison would also be on the menu although the poor would not be allowed to eat the best parts of a deer.

However, in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, the most caring of the aristocracy might let the poor serfs have what was left of the deer.

These parts were known as the deer’s ‘umbles’. These were the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains, mmmmmmmm nice.

Mixed with whatever else a cook could get, they were made into a pie. Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie’.

By the end of the 19th century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner.

But now many people have returned to the more native goose for Christmas and I must admit I’m very partial to wild goose – as long as I don’t have to chase it!

Wild turkeys have between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers in patterns called feather tracts.

A turkey’s feathers provide a variety of survival functions-they keep him warm and dry, allow him to fly, feel and show off for the opposite sex.

The head and upper part of the neck are featherless, but if you look close, you can see little bumps of skin on the bare area.

Most of the feathers exhibit a metallic glittering, called iridescence, with varying colours of red, green, copper, bronze and gold.

The gobbler, or male turkey, is more colourful, while the hen is a drab brownish or lighter colour to camouflage her with her surroundings.

Two major characteristics distinguish males from females: spurs and beards. Both sexes have long powerful legs covered with scales and are born with a small button spur on the back of the leg. Soon after birth, a male’s spur starts growing pointed and curved and can grow to about two inches. Most hens’ spurs do not grow. Gobblers also have beards-tufts of filaments.