Country Matters: Talking turkey, free-range style

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HOW CAN any bird be so hideous and yet so good to eat? I refer, of course, to the turkey, and in particular to the stag, or male, whose naked head and juddering wattles put him hard behind the vulture in terms of sheer repulsiveness.

Yet if you want to talk turkey between now and Christmas, there is nowhere better to do it than Peach Croft Farm, on the outskirts of Abingdon in Oxfordshire, where John Homewood and his son Bill have several thousand birds lined up for the festive season. Apart from its relaxed atmosphere, the key feature of this establishment is that many of the 3,000 turkeys and all the 1,100 geese, are genuine free-range birds, which spend their days out in grass paddocks.

To stroll about among armies of them and have them come up to you gobbling with curiosity, is quite an experience; and although I have yet to eat one, I can imagine that if the taste and texture correspond with those of our own free-range cockerels, any one of them would make a meal to remember.

The Homewoods rent their 700 acres from Radley College. The family has run the farm since the Thirties, and John himself took over from his father-in-law in the Sixties. He has produced turkeys for quarter of a century, but it is only in the past 10 years that he has gone in for free-range birds. His conversion came when his wife, Nancy, was looking for a goose one Christmas and 'couldn't find anything decent'.

Most of the farm is devoted to crops - wheat, barley, beans, oil-seed rape and so on - and 10 acres are down to pick-your-own fruit. The poultry occupy a relatively small area, but Christmas sales have now become an important part of the turnover.

Until the Sixties almost all British turkeys were the bronze (or black) strain, but then, with the craze for frozen birds, big firms went over to the white variety, because they wanted the meat to be as pale as possible. By 1980 bronze birds had practically disappeared, and survivors were regarded almost as a rare breed. Then a reaction set in: people began to breed them again, and now the tide is flowing strongly back in their favour, because they are thought to have more taste.

The Peach Croft turkeys arrive as day-old chicks in July and August, the bronze birds all coming from the Essex breeder Derek Kelly, instigator of their revival. After rearing under conventional gas brooders, the poults go out into airy pole-barns and on to grass fields, where they supplement their other rations by energetic grazing.

They grow more slowly in the open air than they would if they were packed inside sheds, but compensate by remaining a great deal more healthy. Grass apart, they live on pellets made up principally of wheat, together with other vegetable protein, but containing no animal protein, no hormones or growth-promoters, and no antibiotics.

The Homewoods have never had any problem with disease - partly, no doubt, because they clear out their entire stock every Christmas, and the barns and paddocks then stand empty for six months before new chicks arrive. The fact that in the open hens do not feather-peck the stags, as they do indoors, certainly suggests that a more normal existence promotes well-being.

When the birds are young, their main enemies are hawks, owls and foxes. Even a little kestrel, appearing overhead, may make them panic and stampede into the corners of their enclosure, so that those underneath are suffocated. To preserve them from foxes, they are driven back into their barns at night.

The geese have the same sort of regime, although they take more exercise, some of them being walked half a mile out to pasture every morning, and back at night. The result of all this perambulation and grass-eating is birds with firmer flesh than those that sit around indoors.

Alas for these hordes - their hour is almost at hand. The next three weeks will see a terrific increase in activity at the farm as up to 50 casual workers arrive every day to pluck and dress the birds.

They are paid per bird, and it is generally the women who have the fastest fingers. All turkey plucking is done by hand; the geese, on the other hand, are plucked by machine, and then dipped in a bath of hot wax that cools in a film all over the body. At just the right moment - when it has set but before it has gone brittle - the wax is peeled off, taking with it the fuzz and whiskers.

At this time of the year, with two-legged foxes a potential menace, rigorous security precautions are in force.

The Homewoods have never known anyone try to rustle live turkeys, but once the birds are dead, and hanging in sheds, they make sitting targets - and with a big turkey worth almost pounds 50, they need protecting. Thus guard dogs are on duty at night.

Among local butchers who take the birds, a degree of old- fashioned showmanship still prevails. A few early turkeys go off with a band plucked clean across the breast and the rest of the feathers intact, to exhibit both meat and plumage, and these hang outside shops for a week or so, depending on the weather.

Hanging, in the Homewoods' view, is all-important, and one point at which they score heavily over mass-production units, which freeze birds within minutes of death. A week's delay in a cool atmosphere helps mature the meat and give it flavour. 'It's an essential part of the process,' John says, 'and the factory boys can't emulate it.'

After so much attention to detail, the birds are far from cheap: at pounds 2.38 a pound for free-range turkeys and pounds 2.88 for geese, they are four times the price of their supermarket equivalents. Yet they disappear like smoke - some to London stores such as Harrods, but most to individuals, who order in advance, pay a pounds 10 deposit and come to the farm shop to collect at the last minute. Many people make special journeys from London, and last year a man in Lancashire was so desperate for a turkey that he had one sent up by overnight carrier at an extra cost of pounds 15.

Living as they do on the fringes of Abingdon, the Homewoods are keenly aware of the need to be civil to their urban neighbours. In summer they entertain them with fruit- and vegetable-picking - digging your own new potatoes is increasingly popular - and now, in winter, with an outing to the farm to collect their Christmas dinners: an excellent arrangement, beneficial to all, which doubtless gives some customers the illusion that they have hunted down the wild goose or turkey for themselves.

Peach Croft Farm, Radley, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 2HP (0235 520094).