It’s 6am, and we’re driving deep into Dartmoor National Park, in the dark. Arriving at the homestead of Frenchbeer Farm, the sun is just creeping over the hills surrounding the farm’s 700-acres of fields and moors.
Greeting us at the gate is turkey farmer John Malseed – who is better acquainted with sunrise starts than the Farmdrop marketing team visiting him today. He’s agreed to show our content around, and introduce us to his Christmas turkeys.
Malseed is a second-generation farmer here at Frenchbeer. “Mum and dad came here back in 1990. It’s certainly a hill farm, so we did beef and sheep on the hill. And then one year, we did 70 turkeys to aid cash flow. We’ve slowly done more and more to the point where we are today, which is now a big part of the business.”
This year, there are 8,000 turkeys on Frenchbeer farm. All free-range, slow-growing, heritage breeds.
Being responsible for this many Christmas dinners, he quite rightly introduces himself as the man “in charge of Christmas Day.”
Malseed walks us to the fields where the turkeys are housed overnight, in large barns. The first thing you notice is the generous amount of space the birds have to roam once they’re let out of their pens each morning. The second thing is the noise.
Malseed demonstrates the impressive call-and-respond behaviour from the 800 turkeys, now following him to the herbal ley at the bottom of the field.
“The herbal leys are put in not just for welfare reasons, but to give the birds a reason to travel from one end of the range base to the other,” explains Malseed. “It [also] gives that variant of wildlife – for different insects and butterflies…and as the seasons change [the birds] can forage on what’s coming to seed.”
He has planted cover crops, sun flowers, kale and radishes – giving the turkeys plenty ‘to do’ in scratching, pecking and foraging in foliage.
In addition to their pasture diet, the turkeys are also fed grain. Their access to a variety of nutrients from the grass and leys is a stark contrast to mass farmed turkeys, who are largely fed on whole grain and soya. “This type of diet won’t give any flavour to the bird,” says Malseed.
“Here, the cellulose digested from the grass goes into the fat of the bird, and that gives it a yellow pigment, like corn fed chicken.”
Another key difference between battery-farmed turkeys and free-range Frenchbeer birds is time.
Malseed’s turkeys are six months old when they’re Christmas table ready, rather than 10 to 12 weeks. What occurs in that additional three months of a Frenchbeer turkey’s life, makes all the difference to the flavour of your Christmas centrepiece.
“Our Christmas turkeys are taken to full maturity, not 10 to 12 weeks. A six month old turkey has been given the time to lay down intramuscular fat. Everyone’s got the ethos of turkey being dry. A Christmas turkey should be tender, have a good depth of flavour and also be juicy – which is where most Christmas turkeys fail because they haven’t got much fat on them.”
At six months, the turkeys are slaughtered, and dry plucked by hand. They are then. game hung for 10 to 14 days in a temperature controlled fridge. This gives the turkey meat time to tenderise, and intensifies the flavour of the bird. So when it arrives via your Farmdrop delivery, it’s perfectly plump and ready for cooking.
Malseed advises to keep it simple when planning your cooking method: “It’s essentially just a big chicken there’s nothing to be scared about.” He recommends cooking it ‘hot and quick’.
This is his surefire method: if you are roasting a 5kg bird, cook for one hour breast side down to let the fat deposits drain through the bird. Then cook for another hour, breast side up to brown it. Simple!
When the turkey is this flavourful, you don’t need to add too much to it – just some seasoning, delicious sides, and a glass of wine of course!
If you want to clap eyes on the beautiful Frenchbeer Farm and it’s feathered inhabitants, scroll back up to watch the video.