It seemed like such a lovely festive thing to do, to help out a local farmer plucking geese for the Christmas market. I imagined the white feathers falling like snow, the team singing carols as we swapped tidings of comfort and joy.
It didn’t quite turn out like that. The feathers smelt of wet dog and got up my nose. My fellow pluckers were as inclined to tell dirty jokes as sing a carol. Almost a week later I’m fairly sure I still smell a little bit of goose fat. Yet, by the end of two days I think I knew more about the true meaning of Christmas than if I had spent my weekend shopping for presents.
Traditionally in Britain the goose was the centre piece of the Christmas table. The birds will graze free range on grass during the summer gradually getting fatter and fatter as the festive season approaches. As far back as the Middle Ages we kept goose for meat and feathers in arrows, quills and pillows.
In Victorian times it was still the food of choice hence the song ‘Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat’. However, as the modern age approached, the turkey took over. The American bird supplied much more meat per pound of live bird and was easier to raise on an industrial scale. The goose was dismissed as old fashioned, fiddly and worst of all full of fat. Of course in the age of the hipster, when everyone wants to be ‘authentic’, this is exactly why it is making a comeback. Although clearly not in the hipster category despite her trendy trousers, Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she too favours goose over turkey for Christmas lunch.
As the public becomes more concerned about animal welfare, geese raised in the UK for the Christmas market are much more likely to be truly free range. I visited a farm in Scotland where 21 geese are raised every year and processed on site – this is where the fiddly bit comes in. The farmer relies on volunteers every year to come along and help with the job of plucking and dressing the birds.
It started off jolly enough. Collecting the down in particular is a lovely task. The soft feathers underneath the wing float into a box, to be cleaned later and stuffed into a pillow. But processing food is rarely fluffy as I found writing my first book, The Ethical Carnivore. The geese are lined with thick yellow fat. We carefully put it aside to be rendered down later and sealed in jars. In the old days it was used to treat chesty coughs, stay warm and of course cooking. Despite years of being told it is bad for us, it turns out goose fat is actually better than some vegetable oils for cooking and has far fewer saturated fats than butter or lard. Removing it is a greasy, smelly job and like all such jobs we make a joke of it.
We bond over the extraordinary experience, make friends standing around a trestle table for hours on end discussing life and death and food. It’s hard work but it is going to make us appreciate our Christmas feast all the more. Perhaps the roast goose itself will give less meat than the turkey but the flesh is dark and succulent and the skin crispy, and, like our prime minister, I’ll be eating the best roast potatoes cooked in goose fat for months to come.