Why should it be suddenly be gastronomically correct? By modern standards a goose is impracticably large considering what it yields for the Christmas table. A 20lb bird shrinks to 16lb when dressed, sheds a few more pounds of runny fat in the roasting; and finally its large carcass provides just enough meat for six, or eight at a pinch. And it isn't cheap, at around pounds 4 or pounds 5 a pound for the resulting lean meat.
Goose, of course, was our national Christmas bird long before turkeys came on the scene in the 18th century. Goose was the prime choice if you weren't important enough to have swan, in which case you had both, and probably a peacock for good measure.
Certainly we are returning to a very old tradition. Geese and ducks were eaten in Britain in prehistoric times and when we were a peasant people we prized every part of a goose, not only the meat, but the fat, and especially the feathers and down. At Agincourt our longbowmen trimmed goose feathers to make arrow flights (a flight of English arrows resembled a snowstorm, said a contemporary commentator). The kings and queens of England laid their heads on pillows of goose-down. Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson wrote their plays with a goose-quill pen.
And before the family medicine cabinet, goose fat was a cure for many ills. Mothers rubbed it on the chests of children with feverish coughs. In winter they used it as a lip-salve or rubbed it on chapped hands. They made it into lotions and potions, as a skin rub mixed with the flowers of broom and gorse, or the leaves of watercress. They made it into an embrocation to relieve muscular stiffness, blended with turpentine, horseradish juice and mustard, emulsified with egg yolk, and stiffened with seaweed jelly.
The goose was easy to farm, and it was often left to children to guard them. Every August the birds were herded in flocks from Lincolnshire and East Anglia to Smithfield market, slowly munching their way along the hedgerows to arrive in time for Christmas.
East Anglia is still the traditional home of British geese. I went to see goose-farmer Chris Patmore, who breeds geese and ducks near Thaxted in Essex. The geese make a stirring spectacle, stomping about in a showy pack, beady eyes fixed on you, their big orange beaks bobbing on the end of their straining necks, as they raise their voices in cacophonous chorus.
Patmore fattens 2,000 geese for Christmas. 'They aren't aggressive except when they are mating,' he says, sitting at the table with his wife, Jean, in his farmhouse. 'But their wings can almost break your arm.'
Living here must be like being on a permanent set for Hitchcock's The Birds. You are knee-deep in ducks whichever way you turn, unless you walk into the geese, in which case you are immediately up to your armpits.
Geese resist the worst excesses of factory farming. For one thing a goose lays only 60-odd eggs a year, not all of them fertile. Left to graze in fields, geese fill them with sloppy mess. But here in roomy, light, airy sheds they bask in beds of straw, which are changed every day.
Geese are very agreeable to look after; they love to play with water and they are not gross feeders; though in south-west France they are force-fed with maize to increase the size of their livers. The goose fat which is the main cooking medium, and the prized confit of goose so essential to a Cassoulet de Toulouse, are but by-products of the area's most profitable industry, making foie gras.
British geese are bred for the table, and Patmore takes pride in selling a product which is dry-plucked (using a machine that makes as much noise as a pneumatic drill). Scalding the bird in hot water to remove the feathers tears off the top-skin and he refuses to do this.
In Britain we've always eaten them with sage and onion stuffing; the French stuff them with apples and chestnuts, the Germans with apples and prunes. In olden days, though, garlic sauce was the usual accompaniment.
Onion and garlic have always been thought to thin the blood, therefore a good accompaniment to fatty food, and Alexander Neckham, a famous 12th-century cook, decreed that goose should be eaten with a garlic sauce sharpened with wine, grape verjuice or crab apple juice. It was well understood to be a heavy and rich dish, and the Elizabethan writer Thomas Moufit declared that goose any older than three months should be taken with garlic sauce, strong drink - and plenty of exercise.
Goose fat is the problem, of course. Goose is the fattiest bird of all. According to that great chronicler of English country lore, Dorothy Hartley, country folk would stuff rabbit haunches inside the cavity of the goose to flavour this essentially dry meat with its fat. She details a Sussex dish in which the whole goose is encased in a paste of flour and water, tied in a cloth and boiled till tender. The fat of the goose impregnates the pastry, which was served with the bird, like a suet crust.
Your Christmas goose will yield several pounds of goose fat, which should be dutifully reserved for future use; for making pastry, or for roasting or sauteeing potatoes. Potatoes fried in goose fat are delicious. For two, peel and cut three medium potatoes (a waxy kind) in four, lengthwise. Fry in goose fat for 15-20 minutes, turning to cook each surface.
Given our anxiety about eating saturated animal fats, the news from south-west France is that their goose-fat eaters have the lowest heart disease levels in France. The World Health Organisation is looking at the claim by Dr Serge Renaud of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Lyons that goose fat is in composition closer to olive oil than butter or lard, and may even protect the heart. So, eat up your goose fat.
According to the Goose Producers Association, most people under 40 have never cooked a goose before. Any advice? The conventional wisdom is to roast it in a moderately hot oven, 350F/180C/Gas 4, for 20 minutes to the pound plus 20 minutes. But allowing for variations between ovens, less may be better. Test the thigh with a skewer for tenderness; juices will run clear when done.
The goose is a fatty bird, so some cooks prick it all over with a fork, standing it on a grid in an oven dish, to encourage the fat to run off. Pour off fat at intervals during roasting, and keep for future use. The skin is tender, so it's a good idea to cover the bird with foil for most of the cooking, removing at the end to brown and crisp the skin.
These days it's considered advisable to cook the stuffing separately in an oven dish, putting it in for the last hour. For a traditional sage and onion stuffing with chestnuts: peel and finely chop 1lb onions and lightly fry in 3oz butter, adding 4 chopped sage leaves, salt, pepper, nutmeg and a pinch of sugar to flavour. Add the chopped goose liver, and stir in 1/2 lb white breadcrumbs. Mix in a dozen pre-cooked, peeled, chopped chestnuts. Either stuff the bird with this mixture, or cook it in an oven dish for last hour of roasting.
Here is a recipe for rillettes of goose from Goose Fat and Garlic by Jeanne Strang (published last month in paperback, Kyle Cathie, pounds 9.99). You can use the left-over pieces from the roast, although the French version will have been made with the remains of an uncooked carcass in which the breast and legs have been set aside for other uses.
LES RILLETTES D'OIE
carcass of the bird, including remaining meat
giblets, if you still have them
pieces of skin, for flavour
225g/8oz belly of pork, cut into very small cubes
225g/8oz goose fat
salt and pepper
1 or 2 cloves
300ml/ 1/2 pt water
Break up the carcass and chop the remaining ingredients. Put into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the water and seasonings, cover and simmer very slowly, stirring often, for at least two hours.
When the flesh flakes easily from the bones and the liquid has almost evaporated, drain the fat, and leave to cool. Remove meat and tear into shreds, mix with the fat and any remaining juices. Put into pots and cover with a layer of melted goose fat. Chill. Eat like a pate with fresh bread as an hors d'oeuvre. -
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