Farming and bird flu

A few days ago, the only thing on my mind was: to brine or not to brine. Purists point out that the Pilgrims didn’t do brine, but I think it makes the turkey tender and juicy. I fill a small black bin with salt water, a box of juniper berries and bay leaves. I then lower my free-range, organic turkey into the brine with the solemnity of a bishop at a high-church christening. A day later, I lift the fat, albino baby out, shove a few oranges in the cavity, and stick it in the hot Aga for two hours. Thinking about how to roast the turkey is a nostalgic exercise. When my parents were alive, I always went home for Thanks-giving, and my father cooked the turkey. He took his job seriously. ‘The challenge,’ he explained, ‘is to create two different temperatures, one for the breast and one for the thighs. The leg meat has to reach 165˚ so that the connective tissue is cooked, but that leaves you with a dry breast.’

One year, he put two of those ice masks on the turkey for a couple of hours before roasting. It looked like a turkey with a hang-over, and my mother raised hell. A few years later, he had the local blacksmith make an oval metal ring he designed. It had sturdy feet and strong handles so that he could cook a 16lb turkey (never more) breast side down, flipping it over half way through cooking. He wanted to file for a patent for his Eureka Turkey Ring, but my mother discouraged him. Her philosophy was: get a turkey that has had a good life and you’ll have good turkey. Buy a turkey brought up in a dark shed and, whatever you do, you’ll have bad turkey.

These memories of gastronomic tension now seem like temps perdu. Nine miles from us is the village of Redgrave, where turkeys were found to have the deadly strain of bird flu. The culling that began on that farm, some 5,000 turkeys, 1,000 ducks, 500 geese, has been followed up by the slaughter of 22,000 birds on neighbouring farms. We are a feather away from the surveillance zone. We have two flocks: the ‘house’ chickens, a small family of Dark Brahmas who mingle peaceably with the peacocks (12), guinea fowl (5) and Sister Sugar, a Norfolk Black turkey, a jolie-laid widow who will never rest on the Eureka Turkey Ring. Our commercial flock of hybrids (100) produce rich eggs for the restaurant and the farmers’ market. They have an idyllic field next to the woods where they roam beneath the trees. When they pass their best laying days, we offer them ‘Free to a Good Home’, together with a copy of Francine Raymond’s classic book, Keeping a Few Hens in your Garden.

All our birds are now confined to fruit cages and sheds, Cold Comfort Farm meets Guan-tanamo Bay. The wild birds are seen as the Al Qaeda. But I’m on the side of scientists who believe that bird flu rests with intensively farmed poultry. Chicken waste enters the fields and the rivers, is spread as fertiliser. Wild birds (especially mute swans) graze on these fields. In East Anglia alone, 25 million turkeys are farmed each year, and 10 times as many chickens. That’s a mountain of poultry waste, and the virus in faeces can survive for weeks.

The day will come when we realise that there is no magic. The birds at Redgrave were ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ but they weren’t born free: they were imported from the Netherlands as day-old chicks. Mean-while, this Thanksgiving we’ll eat the wild pheasants hanging in the game larder. In honour of my father I’ll say a small varia-tion of the grace he loved: Thank you God for this good earth. Please forgive us for not loving it enough.

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