Saturday, 4 February 2012

Flights of festive fancy

It seems extraordinary now to think that roast chicken was an annual event when I was a child, served at Christmas with that other rare treat, a bottle of wine (usually Graves). Then as rationing was phased out and food stocks and family budgets began to increase, roast chicken appeared at Easter too and then turkey became popular for larger numbers at Christmas.

But some thirty years ago, goose became our festive bird of choice. Friends would often tell us how much more meat per pound we would get with a turkey, but we are happy to savour smaller quantities of really tasty and distinctive meat on Christmas Day.  Not to mention those pots of pure fat stored in the fridge for the coming months, to transform Kind Edward potatoes into crispy, waist-ruining pleasure.

It was the cookery writer and restaurateur Robert Carrier who converted us to goose. An American fluent in French and German, Carrier came to Europe with the US army during the Second World War and stayed on, living in Paris and Rome and then London. He began writing about food for Harpers Bazaar and then the Sunday Times before becoming a television personality and  rescuing the ruined Hintelsham Hall in Norfolk to create a Michelin two star hotel. I bought The Robert Carrier Cookbook in 1969 and used it so much it fell apart. His recipes were as demanding than Elizabeth David's, but were delivered in a rather more flamboyant style (he had also worked in musical theatre).

Carrier's description of his French grandmother's roast goose, with home made sauerkraut and brandy soaked prune stuffing, was irresistible. But the real showstopper was stuffed goose neck - the long skin filled with a rich fragrant mixture of minced veal, goose liver, walnuts, apples and breadcrumbs moistened with sherry and then gently roasted to create a delicious Christmas Eve appetiser that was part sausage, part faggot, served with winter salad and cornichons. I prepared this tasty treat every Christmas Eve for years until the bureaucrats of Brussels decreed that selling geese with their complete necks was a risk to citizens. 

After experimenting with various sources, we always buy our goose from the redoubtable Judy Goodman of Worcestershire. It arrives beautifully packed in a strong box with handles, the ivory fat in packed in its own carton, the glistening liver and lights sealed in a bag, the bird exuberantly garnished with sage and lovingly swathed in crisp, white paper.

On some Christmasses Past, I would prepare a three bird roast, boning and stuffing the goose with a large chicken which was in turn boned and stuffed with a pheasant. These days you can buy such a treat ready for the oven.  But I have decided that I prefer to keep the goose fat pure, rather than filling the roasting tin with the  fat of three different birds. So I now usually cook a tasty corn-fed chicken separately to give white meat to complement the dark, gamey goose flesh, and hold its own with the slow cooked red cabbage, crisp sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and roast potatoes.

However, a boned and stuffed bird - a Gresham duck or a free-range corn-fed chicken - is a regular dish for special dinners in our household.  The effort is well worthwhile, not only for the delicious flavours but also because it is a luxurious but efficient way to feed eight people from one bird (and cold left-overs are delicious).  

"First, confront the duck!"
Which brings me to another great American cookery writer and tv presenter, Julia Child, whose Mastering the Art of French Cooking describes how to bone a duck before stuffing it, trussing it and then baking it encased in pastry. 

Essentials are a sharp thin bladed knife (a filleting knife is ideal), poultry scissors, a trussing needle, butcher's sterilised thread, a thimble and plenty of time. To reduce panic, do the boning the day before you aim to do the cooking until you become adept. Anyone who has seen Julie & Julia, with the wondrous portrayal of Julia Child by Meryl Streep, will remember the moment when cooking duck en croûte becomes the crowning glory for Julie Powell  (the New York administrative assistant whose 2003 blog about her year long effort to cook all the recipes in the first Child volume helped inspire the film).

...and then flatten it.
Boned, stuffed bird
According to Julia Child, the average time to bone a duck is 45 minutes but regular practice can reduce to around 20 minutes (a gratifying discovery, as this is the time I generally take.)  There are written instructions on the web including Edward Smith's step by step guide at InterSite or the Smithsonian Museum homage to Julia Child. 

Having liberated the carcase, break the bones up a little and roast them for 20 minute or so in a little oil in the oven, to caramelise before popping into the pressure cooker with water and vegetables to make a rich stock for gravy and soup.

When it comes to filling, let your imagination run riot.  One of my favourite combinations for duck are a pork or veal forcemeat, layered with whole chicken fillets, interleaved with natural dried apricots and pistachio nuts. In a large chicken, use duck fillets in the centre and prunes and almonds.  The colours and textures of the different layers are particularly attractive when the bird is sliced (and of, course with no bones, it is a joy to carve.) 

Alas, I have just realised that a chicken stuffed with duck fillet and sherry soaked prunes has just been devoured, without a photograph being taken. So, dear readers, I will remedy that in another installment. In the meantime, bon appetit!


  1. Mmmmm - yummy! Just enjoyed remembering poultry past and looking forward to roast fowl of the future! Great blog.

  2. Goose was on the menu for the first time at ours this year as Waitrose had an organic one from £60 down to £30 on New Year’s Eve. We had it on New Year’s Day and the goose fat came off in astonishing amounts. Note: The bird must be raised off the pan. We have two goodly jars full and they will last a while, though I did do some fried bread in it. Wow. The breast was a little dry I have to say, though I stuck to the timings. The skin was amazing.

    As a footnote, the odd, long shape of our cat in repose reminds me of nothing more than the goose as it lay ready to be cooked on our baking tray.