Why aren’t we eating Cotswolds lamb instead of bland turkey?
Christmas, like the Bloody Mary, belongs in spirit to the Cotswolds. With the possible exception of Nazareth, which can be a bit sweaty at this time of year, there is no finer place on earth in which to celebrate the festive season. When an Englishman is abroad, for example, and he dreams of the December jamboree back home, he fantasises about it taking place in this green and pleasant land. In his mind’s eye, encouraged by every picturesque Christmas card, he imagines the jollities happening in our undulating part of the world rather than in, say, an L.S Lowry painting.
There are of course other parts of rural Britain that will challenge this view but none, in my opinion, evoke the same nostalgic celebratory feel as our hills, barns, cottages, dry-stone walls and open fires. With that in mind I like to think the Cotswolds is Christmas personified with the annoying exception of the turkey. And that oddly could have been sorted out too. We could have become the complete embodiment of the Christian feast – leaving Lapland, for example, as an also ran – but we failed to commercialise the lamb.
It was Charles Dickens, in his 1843 book A Christmas Carol, who arranged for Scrooge to give a turkey to Bob Cratchit. Before that nobody in Britain had considered the lumpen beast as a celebratory dish. Quite why Scrooge should have chosen the turkey - a bird almost exclusive to the Americas and in particular to Mexico - is unknown, but within a decade it was established as the season of goodwill’s gastronomic centrepiece. By the 20th century Christmas wasn’t Christmas in the UK without a gobbler. That is until rationing was introduced in World War Two. Turkeys were in short supply and so the population mocked-up festive birds from of legs of mutton. When the war was over the Cotswolds, which is after all historic sheep country, singularly failed to stick with the woolly quadruped and embrace it as its Christmas dish. Instead of eating sheep we behaved like them. We went back to the big bird to celebrate the birth of Christ. And I for one have never understood why.
If turkey was a luxury food such as a rib of beef, or if it was as rare as lark’s tongues or as fine as fois gras, I could more easily comprehend its position as the apogee of the feast of St Stephen. But it is not. It is not only not special but it is also not particularly popular. At Tesco for example turkey breast is almost exactly the same price as chicken breast, while a turkey drumstick is, per kilogram, considerably cheaper than a chicken thigh, and yet it is the cluck-cluck not the gobble-gobble that dominates the supermarket shelf.
Three hundred and sixty four days a year most of the British population don’t care for turkey. I have, for example, never been offered a turkey nibble or as far as I can remember ever eaten it either for Sunday lunch or at a dinner party. There is no turkey on the menu of our most popular middle market restaurant chains such Cote Brasserie, Prezzo or Wetherspoons. And there is no finger lickin’ turkey at KFC or flame-grilled peri peri turkey wing at Nando’s. Mcdonald’s sells chicken nuggets, chicken ‘selects’ and five different types of chicken wrap but pooh poohs a turkey nugget or a turkey wrap. And where is the turkey biriyani, balti or tikka masala? Our only nod to turkey fast food has been the Twizzler, which had a very brief outing before it was banned from school meals in 2005 and finally disappeared when Bernard Matthews stopped making it.”
The nice thing about turkey is it’s almost like using a blank canvas,” says Peggy Albertson, the PR for America’s Turkey Federation. What she means is that it is bland. Her remark goes some way to explaining why turkey burgers are a staple of US fast food joints and turkey is the choice for every celebratory meal in the States.
But in Britain we enjoy stronger fare, which is why it is baffling that we choose turkey for our Christmas dinner. Lamb on the other hand is not bland. It represents Christ and is a sacrificial animal that symbolises gentleness, purity and, by luck, the Cotswolds. If we had had got our marketing right 70 years ago the whole world might not only be dreaming about our hills but also eating mutton rather than a Mcgobbler on Christmas Day.