In the UK, as many turkeys are eaten at Christmas as they are in the rest of the year put together. Often you’ll hear people say they don’t particularly like turkey meat, but this is probably because they haven’t tasted it at its best.
As with most meats, there is a huge variance in the way turkeys are grown and farmed, and this will make the difference between a fabulous or a forgettable meal. Chosen wisely and cooked correctly, turkey should be a real treat – one of the highlights of Christmas Day – and hopefully this piece will give you the information you need choose a quality bird that becomes just that.
From my experience of visiting many farms, I maintain that pigs and turkeys are my favourite animals to spend time with, due to their fun and mischievous personalities. While I recognise that all farm animals are sentient beings, some are more tuned in to their surroundings than others, and turkeys are highly tuned. They are smart animals and highly inquisitive, meaning they really need stimulation and careful management to stay mentally and physically healthy.
Turkey farming follows a very similar protocol to chicken farming, and in their early weeks the birds even look the same. Baby turkeys are called poults. They are hatched around a month after being laid, at which point they are kept warm by heat lamps. As they grow, they are moved into heated barns (or sometimes tents), and as their feathers grow, the barn temperature is slowly reduced to compensate.
The life the turkey leads will vary considerably depending on the brand or retailer the turkey is destined for.The cheapest, unluckiest turkeys will live their entire lives in dark crowded barns where they will never see natural daylight. At the other end of the spectrum, the lucky ones live in forests, get good exercise and have no end of socialising and stimulation. The difference in the life the turkey has lead will usually be reflected in the cost of the bird.
Paul Kelly breeds free-range turkeys
Cheap ‘commercial’ turkeys are grown in crowded dark barns for a reason. The low light stops them fighting due to boredom, the crowded conditions ensure minimum accommodation costs for the producer, and lack of exercise means the birds get more fat more quickly, again reducing the production cost.
Turkeys worldwide usually fall into the following farming categories:
- Standard indoor intensive This is the most basic, and can have problems with overcrowding and poor welfare.
- Higher-welfare indoor These are birds grown in barns where their welfare is better managed and they can express their natural behaviours. Look for trusted logos on products, such as ‘RSPCA Approved’ or ‘Certified Humane’.
- Free-range This is a regulated term in the European Union, which means birds must have outdoor access for at least half of their lives and a minimum allowance of four square metres of outside space.
- Organic Usually organic birds have the same lifestyle as a free-range bird, but are fed on 100% organic feed.
Jamie and his food team would not encourage people to buy turkey that is anything less than higher-welfare. An example of this would be RSPCA Approved in the UK or Australia, or Certified Humane in the USA. This means the barn is much more spacious, the air quality is well managed, and the birds have enrichment such as perches, allowing them to express their natural behaviours, which in turn reduces stress levels.
The turkey we really encourage people to buy, however, is free-range. Access to the outdoors is so important for turkeys because they are naturally very inquisitive and need to be stimulated. The quality of the free-range space can vary, though, and the best birds come from farms where there is lots of space and pasture or forest areas for them to explore. Free-range birds tend to grow more slowly, meaning they have more flavour, more fat in their muscles and a better, firmer texture. For this reason, free-range turkeys are less likely to dry out when you cook them.
Paul Kelly and one of his multi-award winning birds
In our opinion, the best turkey we’ve experienced come from producers like Kelly’s Turkeys. This is because they do three things that are extraordinary for turkey producers: Firstly, they only use a traditional heritage breed, distinguished by their black feathers, which are grown to full maturity. Secondly, their turkeys live in spacious tents in a forest where they can play on climbing frames, socialise in a natural environment and even explore the forest for grubs, berries and nettles – it’s the ultimate in free-range. Thirdly, once they have been humanely slaughtered they are dry aged, which allows the flavour and texture to develop in a way that never happens in more commercial systems.
As ever with animal products, we always recommend buying the best you can afford, and going for quality over quantity. Turkey is a product for which the welfare and method of farming has a direct impact on the quality and flavour of the meat. Once you’ve tried a top-end free-range bird, it’s unlikely you’d go back to anything else. And if you do only buy a turkey once a year for Christmas, then all the more reason to trade up to something more special!