A hundred years ago, a golden-browned goose was a familiar delicacy on December 25th. Scrooge thought it essential to add to poor Bob Cratchet’s table in A Christmas Carol, and a goose who lays golden eggs was a prize in the Jack In the Beanstalk story. But good luck finding one at your average American supermarket today.
The Christmas goose actually traces its roots back to the medieval European feast of Martinmas. St. Martin was revered in Roman times as a spiritual leader and patron of children and the poor. As legend goes, one evening, having learned of his consecration as Bishop, he hid in a barn to avoid what he saw as a title above his humble station, only to be revealed by the loud squawking of geese. Their punishment? Feast fare for centuries to come. But as farming life waned, so did the goose—an animal that requires a long maturation time, much grazing area and time and effort to cook. One New Hampshire farmer is working to bring them back.
“A decade ago, I started reminiscing about the geese we had at Christmas as a kid,” says goose farmer Jim Czack. “I couldn’t find one, and so decided to raise my own. Once I had these noble, engaging creatures on my land I knew this would be much more than just my own Christmas dinner.”
Thus was born Elevage de Volailles in Rye, New Hampshire, a small farm-to-table poultry, duck and goose farm on a tree-lined rural road surrounded by horse barns and country homes. Demand has been so robust that Czack doubled his goose gaggles last year and is tripling them this year.
But those that want a Christmas goose from Elevage need to decide early. “We sold out by November 3rd,” explains Czack as he walks the farm in a tweed cap and farm boots, a bustling flock of white and orange at his back. The heritage Embden geese are special ordered, usually after a personal visit to the farm in late summer or early fall.
“We get two types of customers: those harkening back to childhood memories or families looking to create a new tradition by putting something on the holiday table that is local, meaningful and sustainable,” says Czack. And sustainable they are, with geese a quadruple treat agriculturally. Raising geese can yield up to four products; eggs, meat, rendered fat and downy white feathers. Free range geese are also excellent soil fertilizers and natural lawn mowers.
“The geese have done wonders for my fields and lawns,” says Tuckaway Farm owner Dorn Cox, who provides his large farmland for grazing as Czack rapidly increases his goose flock. The webbed feet of Embden geese span five to nine inches, and are great at flattening crop residue. “They leave nothing untouched, getting the stalks, stems and seed pods back into the ground which increases my farm’s soil fertility. They also consume insects that might otherwise harm my blueberries!”
On small farms like Elevage, a Christmas goose is 10 months in the making. but factory-farmed geese can be slaughtered after 16 weeks. Some critics suggest that this is too young to have acquired the finer flavors of the fowl.
Whatever kind of goose you choose, be warned—roasting a whole goose isn’t easy. “Don’t cook above165 [degrees F,] serve medium rare, like a fine steak, and baste continuously” advises farmer Czack, who provides his customers with goose cooking tips and recipes and stresses: “Goose meat is NOT chicken.”
And how does a professional chef cook a Christmas goose?
“Just like it’s raised,” says Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Black Trumpet Bistro chef and owner Evan Mallett, “very thoughtfully.”
Mallet recommends rubbing the legs in salt, sugar and spices and leaving them to confit (a French word for preserve) for 24 hours. And always cook a goose slowly. “Some complimentary spices are horseradish, coriander, juniper and rosemary. If you get a fresh goose, the meat requires zero tenderizing it’s so luxurious and flavorful. Respect the wonderful intensity of the goose and don’t negate it by over-cooking or too many spices,” Mallett cautions.
Mallett’s Black Trumpet restaurant has become somewhat of a mecca for a Christmas goose done right in the area. He’s had it on the Christmas Eve menu for nearly 10 years and says when he first started offering it, there were no local producers. He had to order from a waterfowl farm in New York.
But mere mortals can cook a goose, too. “This is our third Christmas serving fresh goose,” says New Hampshire resident and mom of three, Melanie Cummins. Before she discovered Czack’s farm, she prepared only frozen, store-bought birds. Now Cummins’ Christmas feast feels to her like a re-creation of her Polish and German heritage, and a family lesson. “We’ve visited the farm during hatching, gleaning and butchering; our children are connected to our Christmas meal and—best of all—fully understand where their food comes from.”
Buying goose is also not cheap. An 8 lb. bird from a major gourmet supplier online will set you back about $157—if you can find it at all at this late date.
If you missed out on getting a goose this year, it’s never too early to start planning for next year’s feast.
Sarah Brown is a writer who has worked for CNN New York, NBC Moscow, and APTV Moscow. She founded the Green Alliance in 2009, an organization that works with business and consumers on sustainability She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SarahBrownGA.