< Tradition - The Christmas goose

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The Christmas goose: reviving a great British tradition
by Martin Gosling

The goose is back! The most traditional of Christmas poultry is regaining
its place on more and more dinner tables.

It’s not difficult to see why. People are becoming much more discerning
as to the origins of the meat they buy, and British geese reared
naturally on pasture and sometimes corn stubble have an obvious
appeal. The gradual rediscovery of our national heritage and customs
is also playing a part in this move back to a tradition that is very old
indeed.

Through the centuries the goose held pride of place on British tables
at times of festivity and celebration. Apart from the flavour and texture
of its meat, the goose has been a source of other valued benefits
that added to its esteem.

Goose quills were used for writing until the late 19th century.
Feathers and down were much prized for bedding. Although from
earliest times most people made beds from crude mattresses stuffed
with straw, bracken or horse hair, the favoured few would use
goose feathers, often mixed with down, to form the softest possible
bedding. Today they are still regarded as the best available and are
stocked by many of the top stores.

In the field of warfare the goose has made a remarkable contribution
to British culture. Our only indigenous goose is the greylag and it was
from this bird that the archers would select the grey pinion feathers
with which to make the flights, or fletches, for their arrows.

By the end of the 14th century, the longbow was widely used by the
English to whom archery was taught from an early age with a
requirement that men and boys practised their skills after church
service each Sunday. The result was that the bowmen of the English
armies were instrumental in achieving astonishing victories against
great odds — at Crecy in 1346 and Agincourt in 1415. On both
occasions, the steadiness and accuracy of the English archers
destroyed the cavalry of French armies and altered the course of history.

Before the seizure of most common land under the various Enclosure
Acts, small communities would invest in flocks of geese and graze
them on open spaces within each parish. The benefits were obvious
— eggs, feathers, down, quills, medicinal uses for its fat — but
chiefly they were valued for their meat. Many English customs and
traditions, especially at Michaelmas (September 29), were celebrated
by feasting on goose whose meat was always regarded as superior
to other poultry.

In Victorian times, Goose Clubs flourished with members making
payments throughout the year. The Sherlock Holmes short story
‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ describes the working of one
of these clubs in great detail.

It is no surprise that goose meat is so highly prized through time. The
meat has a different succulence and texture, more intense than other
poultry so you don’t need large portions. The fat is an essential part
of the appeal. It is a much softer fat than found in red meat, with a
higher proportion of the more desirable mono-unsaturated fatty acids.
Top chefs love to use it in cooking, and jars of goose fat sell well in
delicatessens and nowadays too in supermarkets.

Because it is reared naturally, fresh goose has a limited season
between September and the end of the year. But with demand in many
areas now outstripping supply, people in the know will always
place their Christmas order early — so that those wishing to try goose
for the first time had better speak to their butchers soon.

As after all, to savour goose meat is to revive a great British tradition.