The whites have had it. Better these days to be a red, a blue, a bronze or a black

Jenny McClean visits a rare turkey farm
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The Independent Online
Take a tip: if you have to come back as a domestic fowl, come back as a turkey. A handsome buff perhaps or possibly a blue. Or even an exotic looking crimson dawn. But not a bronze or black, and definitely not a white. You will see why in a minute.

Not that there is anything wrong with your common or garden white. After all, unlike most chickens, a turkey of whatever persuasion is spared a bleak battery existence. But the lifestyle of the white does reveal one big drawback: most of them get eaten at Christmas.

One reason is that white turkeys are broad-breasted and meaty, the hens weighing 14-16lbs and the males, or stags, anything up to an oven-crushing 40lbs. Buffs and crimson dawns, along with slates, lavenders and Nebraskans, to name a few, are long-breasted, skinnier and therefore less commercial. How can you provide turkey sandwiches into the New Year with something that tips the scales at a mere 10-16lbs?

But the main reason for the proliferation, up to now, of white turkeys at the expense of more colourful souls is cosmetic. A few white feathers left on the carcass after plucking hardly show, and are therefore less likely to upset that pernickety scapegoat, The Housewife.

"Not many people know you can get red and blue turkeys, but public awareness is growing," says Michael Roberts, founder and owner of the Domestic Fowl Trust near Evesham in Worcestershire. "There is a terrific trend now towards bronze turkeys and, to a lesser extent, black, which are harder to find."

Why? Do they taste different? Not according to Mr Roberts who keeps up to half the 13 recognised turkey types (which are all descended from the Mexican wild turkey) among his 160 minority breeds of fowl. He thinks the vogue towards tinted turkeys is linked more to the birds' visual appeal, even though those dining off it will be unaware of its plumage.

"Some people claim they can detect a difference in taste between white and the various coloured turkeys but I'm sceptical," says Michael Roberts. "The different parts of a bird, such as the breast and legs, have their own flavours anyway. Difference in taste between birds is much more down to how they have been reared and cooked." Not surprisingly he finds free- range turkeys the most delicious, whatever their hue, and believes battery farming could be banned without detriment to the industry.

According to Mr Roberts, who founded the trust 20 years ago to save the old, pure breeds of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, more and more people are after bronze and black turkeys for the Christmas table. Pied, lavender and black-wing breeds are unlikely to be bred for food. "They mainly go to farm parks. Or privately. Turkeys make great pets; they don't need a much bigger area than chickens and are less noisy than peacocks."

What about their alleged gobbling sound? "Yes, they do gobble, at least the males do. The females have a wider vocabulary. Altogether turkeys have the most noticeable range of all the domestic fowl, although I have had some that are very quiet indeed."

Because of the noise, and their flock instincts, turkeys also make good house guards. But foxes still manage to get at them, mauling them in situ because they are too heavy to be carted off. A light female might be able to fly away but a hefty male cannot even get off the ground. Sometimes the daft birds will come down off their perch to inspect the fox.

"They have a strong mischievous streak and can be infuriating but they make very good mothers because they will sit," Mr Roberts says. They are prolific layers, producing 100 eggs or more in their first year. Unlike chickens' eggs they are all the same colour - white with brown flecks. They are also harder shelled, larger and more pointed. Unwanted male chicks are killed at a day old for owl and hawk food. Unwanted male adults are eaten by the trust's six staff.

Perversely, while black turkeys are sought after he finds black chickens impossible to sell in Britain. "Everyone wants brown or speckled, and something that lays brown eggs. Black hens tend to lay white eggs. On the Continent and in America, on the other hand, they think brown eggs are dirty, so you'll find that most black hens are of Mediterranean origin."

The Domestic Fowl Trust is a muddy place, requiring the wearing of wellies in all conditions short of drought. The birds are kept in low wire-fenced pens and while many of his breeds of poultry do not wander if well-fed, some are not averse to visiting each other, a social event I witnessed and which was signalled by pandemonium breaking out.

Michael Roberts has been fond of fowl since childhood. "Silkies, from China, were my favourite," he says. "Marco Polo, the first European to see them, described them as the only chickens he had ever seen with wool on their backs. I came to turkeys later and now I have rather got a soft spot for them."

He plans to include turkeys on his visits to Russia where he acts as adviser to the St Petersburg Poultry Club, an organisation he helped set up last year (1994) to restock the country with the breeds of domestic fowl that had been dismissed as non-commercial by the collective farms. Although he has exported chicken eggs to collectors in Japan, Africa, America, Canada and Scandinavia, turkeys are less popular abroad than they are here. "The further east you go the less you see them. In Poland, for instance, they are much more used to eating geese."

The trust could be a registered charity but has opted for independence. Income is generated mainly by the sale of eight commercial breeds, although of the total 20,000 eggs, chicks and adult fowl he sold last year, over a third were rare breeds and interest is growing.

"Bantams and miniature breeds are always in demand," he says. "It's surprising how many we sell to Londoners. But recently we have had a lot of people who have moved into the country and found themselves with a large garden or orchard that they want to fill with larger fowl. Our other main group of customers is the old country set who have always kept a certain breed.

"We grill new customers fairly well so that they get the birds that are best for them and know how to look after then. The main questions are, 'How many eggs do you want?' and 'How fox-proof are you?' But it is quite possible to keep, say, four turkeys in a garden shed with straw and a good sized perch."

If you buy eggs or chicks now you can grow your own Christmas lunch for '96. But for those still in need of a bird now, a better bet is the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association, a marketing organisation for 35 producers supplying turkeys reared to a strict code.

"We don't supply supermarkets," explained a spokeswoman, "only independent butchers. Our birds are free-range and although we don't claim they are organic, many of them are."

You can tell an association bird by the gold triangle it sports, indicating that it has been dry-plucked and hung. The more commonly wet-plucked birds cannot be hung because their keeping quality is reduced. And hung birds, claims the association, taste better.

The association can supply a list of producers, a recipe leaflet and a copy of their code, but the simplest thing is to phone a few butchers. Another useful source of festive food information is the Soil Association's organic Christmas list featuring turkeys, among other goodies.

Not necessarily organic or free-range, the Farm Retail Association's "Harvest Times" booklet is a useful guide, not just to turkey suppliers but to farm shops generally.

And what will Trust staff be eating at their Christmas office lunch? "A pied turkey and a Muscovy drake. They taste very nice and I've got too many of them floating around."

The Domestic Fowl Trust, Honeybourne Pastures, Honeybourne, Evesham, Worcestershire WRll 5QJ (01386 833083).

Starting from scratch: turkey chicks cost pounds 2-pounds 4, poults (aged 4-12 weeks) cost pounds 3-pounds 6. Feed and bedding for four turkeys will cost you about pounds 60 a year. Buy the young June-August to fatten for Christmas.

The Poultry Club of Great Britain (01205 724081) advises its members on care and conservation and has details of local shows.

The Traditional Farm Fresh Turkeys Association (01323 899802).

The Soil Association, 86 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB (0117 929 0661). For its Organic Christmas List send pounds 2.50+50p p&p.

Write to The Farm Retail Association, PO Box 200, Winchester SO23 8XJ for a directory of good farm shops selling meat.