From Essex With Love - Spear's Magazine

From Essex With Love

The Kelly Bronze is the Henry Moore, the Barbara Hepworth, the Auguste Rodin of Christmas turkeys, says Clive Aslet.

The Kelly Bronze is the Henry Moore, the Barbara Hepworth, the Auguste Rodin of Christmas turkeys, says Clive Aslet.

As everyone knows, there is only one place to spend Christmas, and that is the countryside. Unfortunately, we rarely manage it. We tend to pass Christmas in the car. Turkeys have much to do with it. Ours is usually collected from Harvey Nichols on Christmas Eve, just as the store is closing. It is traditional for my wife to arrive at the carol service, which we attend with the bird concealed somewhere about her person, or in the car; perhaps we ought to encourage the vicar to bless it.

The cooking of the turkey is so embalmed in ritual that she doesn’t believe it can be accomplished anywhere other than in London. We then progress to our house on the south coast on Boxing Day, a half-eaten turkey carcass in the boot.

There is something poignant about London on Christmas Eve. Well-organised families have left. Those who remain can hardly help sharing a sense of esprit de corps. The lights in drawing rooms are on, Christmas trees are sparkling, curtains are generally undrawn, and it is a treat for a naturally nosey person like me to peer into other people’s houses and note the decor. Finally, the shops close and the city, for the only moment in the year, holds its breath. And then there is that turkey: it has to be a Kelly Bronze.

Opinions differ about turkeys. Some people say the white meat tastes like blotting paper. These are the folk who feel that the turkey deserves to be treated as a symbol of immortality, it hangs around for so long after Christmas. I must admit that I have had my doubts.

In the early part of my married life, my wife and her two sisters – each of whom we would visit en famille at some point of the festive season – pursued a kind of turkey wars. They are all formidable cooks. Each competed for family applause by cooking a turkey to perfection. One year, we ate freshly cooked turkey on three successive days. Then sandwiches, fricassée, risotto, soup. Even the most ambrosial of foods would pale after such exposure.

However, my joy in it revived last year, as an unlikely by-product of the bird flu outbreak. I found myself in Essex, visiting a turkey farm. By coincidence, the farm that the National Farmers Union had proposed that I should visit in pursuit of an article for the Sunday Telegraph was the very one which supplies Harvey Nichols with our turkey, Kelly Turkey Farms in Essex. It was heartening and revealing.

Turkeys are sold at Christmas. That is to say, the vast majority are purchased for the mighty Christmas Day blow out, by people who wouldn’t think of shoving one into the oven at any other time. There are other foods of which this is case – Stilton cheese, for example, now being adopted as a ‘traditional’ element of the festive board in discerning parts of the United States.

‘Our entire existence is focused on Christmas,’ beams the farmer Paul Kelly with an unreasonable amount of cheer. ‘We are living and breathing Christmas every working day.’ The cycle begins with the hatching of turkey chicks in the spring. Everything – as in wine making – is focused on the harvest, taken in December. As well as us, 39,999 other families feast off Kelly Bronzes every year.

Mr Kelly’s eyes sparkle as he reveals the special measures taken to make his turkeys better than the general run. Because Bronze turkeys mature more slowly than bog standard Whites they are killed at six months rather than three. Then comes the plucking. Mr Kelly’s team dry-plucks by hand, rather than soaking the corpse in a hot bath and battering it with rubber flails.

Finally, these seriously good birds are hung, in the manner of pheasants, for three or four weeks. Mr Kelly is surely the only turkey farmer in the world to print his boxes embossed with a quote from John Ruskin: ‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only, are this man’s lawful prey.’

Ten years ago, the difficulty of finding labour made Mr Kelly worry about the future. Already there had been a change from the time of his childhood, when ‘the whole village would come. The children could earn casual money before Christmas. Now children are not allowed to work because of the Health and Safety.’ And British people don’t want to work in refrigerated sheds, gutting turkeys.

So – like so much else in the seemingly immutable British countryside – the labour comes from Poland. They look a jolly lot, in their hairnets and blue overalls; but then, comparatively, they are craftspeople, handling 300 birds an hour, as opposed to 6,000 or even 12,000 an hour that might be the throughput elsewhere. ‘The Polish guys are just fantastic,’ exclaims Mr Kelly. ‘I could kiss and cuddle them every time they turn up.’

Knowing all this – feeling the love that has gone into the turkey that will be cooked, eaten with relish and finally transported between houses – adds zest to my Christmas. Every so often we meet people who spend their Christmas abroad. I have never spent a Christmas away and find it impossible to imagine. It isn’t the affront to tradition, in the abstract, that I’d find hard to take, so much as the departure from Aslet protocol. I know we’d be better off in the country, rather than making the celebration a polycentric affair. But then it wouldn’t be Christmas if we did. Not for us anyway. Pass the bread sauce.



 

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