This year I had a special turkey grace my table: a heritage breed Bourbon Red turkey from Monticello’s Caveny Farm.
Caveny Farm raises several varieties of heritage poultry, including duck and geese. Unlike the tasteless, overgrown Butterball birds found in supermarkets, a Caveny Farm turkey spends its life outside under open skies. Heritage turkeys are allowed to mate naturally and, for all intents and purposes, live their lives as nature intended. Unlike their Butterball counterparts, who reach their market weight in 12 weeks, heritage turkeys have a much slower growth rate, living a full 28 weeks before reaching their optimal size.
Several organizations have been working hard over the past several years to spark interest in the heritage birds, promoting them across the country and saving them from extinction. For instance, Slow Food USA, in association with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, recognized that several breeds of these turkeys were at dangerously low numbers, and began a campaign to increase their presence on the Thanksgiving table. Members of Slow Food, and other sympathizers, signed up to purchase these turkeys as far as a year in advance, encouraging farmers to take a chance on raising them again. The plan worked, and in the last ten years the interest in these particular birds has doubled.
There are a total of eight breeds of heritage turkeys recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA), including Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm. These turkeys are, in essence, from the first half of the 20th century: pre- industrialized agriculture, pre-growth hormones, pre-saline injections and pre-antibiotics. These are turkeys that can stand on their own two feet.
Why should you care? Well, heritage turkeys are more flavorful, for one. Their slow growth on pasture, healthy grasses and all-natural feed make them inherently juicy and rich—downright succulent, in fact. The meat is similar in texture to duck, with a little more “chew” and an incredible deep turkey flavor. The skin is slightly thicker than many other turkeys, and it renders into delightful golden-brown crispiness.
And it’s surprising how few juices are lost during cooking. This Thanksgiving, I had to keep adding water to the bottom of my roasting pan, yet my turkey made excellent gravy—dark and rich. I roasted off the neck and gizzards first, along with an onion, a carrot and one stalk of celery, until they were slightly golden brown. I added the turkey, along with some fresh thyme and parsley stems from my herb garden, to a small pot with chicken stock that I simmered while my turkey was roasting in the oven. I used this stock for the gravy along with a roux I made from the fat left in the bottom of the roasting pan. And that was that.
My husband and I both agreed: It was the best turkey gravy I have ever made. I give all credit to the bird. Next year I think I will order an extra turkey. These birds are definitely worth eating more than once a year.
The winter holiday, for example, is a great time for a turkey. Caveny Farm, which sells its poultry directly through its website, still has some turkeys available for the end-of-the-year festivities. More quality, sustainable, non-factory-farmed livestock (and other foods) can be found at Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest.