Rearing geese for Christmas in Lancashire and the Lake District

PUBLISHED: 12:00 16 December 2013

Ruth Lea rounding up her flock of geese

Ruth Lea rounding up her flock of geese

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Two Lancashire families are helping to revive this neglected bird as a delicious alternative to turkey. Martin Pilington reports

Katherine and Hamish with their childrenKatherine and Hamish with their children

For centuries, goose graced British festive tables. By Victorian days another bird topped the Yuletide pecking order – witness the Cratchits, humble goose devoured, gifted a vast turkey by the redeemed Ebenezer. The goose though has quietly (not something natural to this noisy creature) made a Christmas comeback.

Helping them are the Lea family who have a 60-acre farm on Blindmans Lane at the north west edge of Ormskirk. Lancashire Geese have been raised on the flat fields here for the last 20 years. David Lea now runs the business set up by his father, and has two sons working for him to carry it on into the next generation.

‘They are our strain of geese. It was a chemist who bred them as a hobby about 50 years ago. He’s said to have smuggled eggs in from Denmark and used them to make our breed, which are called Lancashire Geese.’

It would cheer cooks more than the creatures themselves to know that these avian Lancastrians have been developed as a table bird with a relatively high meat-to-bone ratio, and not to be overly fat.

The growing demand for goose is a return to the way our ancestors would have celebrated Christmas. ‘It used to be the poor man’s food, but it’s the other way round now,’ says David.

‘Everyone thinks turkey is traditional, but it’s not. In this country goose was eaten long before we got turkey, and it’s probably the animal that has been domesticated longest as well, longer than the cow and the pig.’

Unlike turkey, now available year-round, geese are a seasonal pleasure, hatched in the spring and despatched for the Christmas market, though in past times they were also eaten at Michaelmas, a quarter day when a goose could sometimes be part of the rent tenants paid to their landlords.

David’s free-range white birds live a good life before their appointed hour, grazing in fields of rich grass during the day, then coming indoors at night to keep them safe from the foxes. ‘You just go out and shout to them and they all go in, like cows – or if you leave them too long they’ll go in by themselves,’ he says.

Over Christmas, the Leas sell about 500 geese, their weights ranging from 10lb to 18lb, from their own butcher’s shop on the farm. And the fat geese that adorn the Christmas windows of many other butchers across the county come from the same source too, though their numbers pale against the 10,000 or so chicks that David supplies in the spring to farms all round Britain.

Unlike the rest of us, David hopes for harsh weather in the autumn and early winter, for good business reasons. ‘The goose puts on fat to keep itself warm – if it’s not cold enough they’ll be a kilo lighter. We always pray for it to be cold – they eat more food of course, but the weight goes up nicely.’

Naturally David eats goose at Christmas. ‘You can serve it with all the trimmings, but you don’t need as much goose as you do turkey as it has more taste and is richer – and it’s moister. And when you cook them all the fat that it gives up is as valuable for the cook as the meat. Cook the bird on a rack and halfway through the fat starts to come out. Pour it off every now and then to keep the oven from getting smoky.’

That fat is one of the great culinary glories of the goose, according to David combining with Ormskirk’s famous spuds to produce the best roast potatoes you’ll ever try. Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Which could be a very bad career move for these delicious and traditional birds.

Home on the free range

Rearing geese for Christmas gave a family business in Lakeland a flying start. - and now they are set to have their best year ever.

Hamish and Katherine Patterson launched Hawkshead Free Range Geese five years ago to give diners an alternative to what they describe as tasteless, intensively reared turkey. After starting with 30 birds, they bought a farm in Rusland Valley to cater for a larger flock. This year, they have 250 geese running free – and the sound of happy geese echoes through the valley.

When they bought their farm in 2010 they concentrated on the restoration of their l old farm house – including exposing beams and pitch pine panelling and slate flagstones to bring it back to its traditional glory. Once the family home was completed, the Pattersons continued to concentrate on their goose enterprise.

Katherine says: ‘All our 250 geese are such characters. From the moment they take their first steps out on the fresh green grass, to the time they take their first plunge in the water, every stage in their lives is a momentous one. We never tire of hearing our geese greet us loudly in the mornings.’

They encourage their six-year-old son and four-year old daughter to help raise the geese. ‘Children spend far too much time indoors on electronic gadgets. We want our children to enjoy the outdoors and the benefits of fresh air, playing out on the grass, and getting mucky while feeding our geese.’

The family’s aim is to ensure their birds have the best possible life before ending up on our Christmas tables. You can find out more at www.highickenthwaitefarm.co.uk

As for future plans, the couple have recently started work on their Horse Holidays project and a hydro electric scheme generating electricity from the beck in their garden for their own home and their farm.

Cook your goose

Look for a goose that is plump, with pale, unblemished skin and a good layer of fat. A good indication of the bird’s age is to check its bill: if it’s flexible, it’s young. The best geese are organic or free-range, reared in the traditional way.

Weigh the bird after it’s stuffed, then allow 15 minutes per 500g, plus another 30 minutes and serve with a fruit-based sauce such as apple. Goose fat is the same consistency as butter and has been used for centuries to cook the world’s best roast potatoes. It is also used to baste meat, flavour stuffings and to fry red cabbage. However, it should be used sparingly and for special occasions.Take the goose out of the fridge an hour before cooking, to make sure it is at room temperature.

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