Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat. How we love that fat – goose flesh may be rich, dark and succulent, but it’s the thought of those bonus pints of the world’s finest cooking medium and the planet’s crispiest crackling which is inducing paroxysms of anticipation in Britain’s top chefs. And right behind them are the foodies buying more of this traditional bird than at any time since Dickens eulogised it in A Christmas Carol.
Do they know what they are in for? Perhaps not first-timers, who could be disappointed to find they’ve forked out twice the price of a turkey to feed half as many, without any sandwich meat to boot. But connoisseurs don’t care that a goose is just for Christmas, given all the freebies no turkey offers up – the fabulous fat, the salty, crisp-as-a-cracker golden skin, the rich liver for practically instant pâté, stock with a uniquely velvety quality and meaty scraps to underpin a New Year cassoulet.
“It’s almost better than the meat, the skin and all the bits,” says Rowley Leigh, who is already spit-roasting four or five geese a day at his Le Café Anglais: “They were so popular at parties and on special last year, I decided to make them part of the regular festive offering.”
He’s not alone. Goose is going on the menu all over fashionable London and beyond, though a traditional roast is the last thing you can expect. Philip Howard is shredding the confit legs and packing the meat into brik pastry for deep-fried goose spring rolls at the two-Michelin-star Square, Oliver Gladwin is putting on orange and thyme-scented potted goose at The Shed, while Adam Byatt will serve goose crown pink with celeriac and cranberries at Trinity.
Yet over at Quo Vadis, while Jeremy Lee was the season’s earliest customer at award-winning goose farm Seldom Seen, you won’t get any goose at all until January. That’s because Lee, who adores the bird, bluntly declares what many think, but few utter – goose may lend itself more to the cutting up and confit treatment than cooking whole: ”I’m not the biggest fan of roast goose meat, but I do love the fat, and what happens when you cook this lovely bird covered in it. Layered with salted pork belly and beans, it will see us through the ghastliness of January, February and March.”
While Claire Symington, of Seldom Seen, believes you can’t go wrong if you roast your typical 5kg (11lb) plus goose for three hours at 190F, many chefs disagree. Howard is an advocate of slow-roasting for 4-5 hours at 120C – “you still get crispy skin, but the breast stays tender” – while Sam Harris, of Zucca, who mostly concurs, turns the temperature up to 220C for the last half-hour. If not slow-roasting, two hours before resting may well be long enough, says Leigh: “Goose meat is surprisingly lean and dries out very quickly.
However you cut it, goose is gorgeous in the hands of a careful cook, which explains surprisingly bullish sales in recessionary times of a bird that can command close to three figures: “We are seeing a 16 per cent increase year on year and could sell more if we could get it,” says M&S poultry technologist Mark Atherton-Ranson.
In supermarkets, the ratio is still just a few thousand geese to every million turkeys, but some food halls are seeing inverse proportions: “Our Christmas goose sales have been outstripping turkeys for the past eight years,” says Selfridges’ fresh-food buyer Andrew Cavanna. “It’s a combination of perceived luxury and the nostalgia of eating a dish that was a Christmas staple more than 100 years ago.”
Then there’s rarity value; the current annual production of 250,000 birds (massively up from an all-time low of 100,000 in the 1970s) is fairly finite, according to Gressingham, which raises more than a third of British geese. While growth is steady, there is a limit to how far smaller farmers can go to meet increased demand, as Symington, who supplies M&S as well as chefs and locals, confesses: “Geese are very labour-intensive. I didn’t know the half of it when I asked Robert to buy me a pet pair for our anniversary and he came home with another 30 in the trailer.”
The following year the Symingtons, who now raise 5,000 geese a year, tried 100 birds from scratch and learned just how much TLC a gosling requires from the moment it arrives at the farm as a day-old hatchling: “Once they venture outside you need to make sure their little unfeathered backs don’t get sunburned, and as they like to sleep outside, an electric pen is necessary to protect them from predators.”
Stephen Curzon, of Gressingham, evokes a memorable image when he tells how much geese love their outdoor beds on “clear, moonlit nights, when they are all wide awake!” He contributes further to the mythology around geese by pointing out the first eggs are laid on Valentine’s Day.
Come December, the best farmers laboriously dry-pluck the birds after they are dispatched – “it’s essential for the crispiest skin,” says Symington. Then they hand-eviscerate them, labour-intensive procedures which add to the cost – typically £13 or more per kilo – as much as their balanced corn diet and the acreage they require for months of free-range grazing. “If we were to keep birds over to offer goose for Easter, it would add enormously to the cost,” says Robert Symington.
But there are a few ways to keep the goose coming months after the birds have vanished from the Christmas shelves. Selfridges is now selling confit legs and smoked goose breast, and chef-charcutiers such as Jason Freedman, of The Minnis, near Margate, are smoking their own.
Small households could preserve the legs of their birds in the fat for New Year and roast just the crown, with crispy wings to nibble on the side and a pot of pâté from the liver as an irresistible starter.