December 2, 2011 10:00 pm

A Christmas goose chase

A Worcestershire farm, known for its top quality flock, has been raising fowls for the festive table for 30 years

To begin with, we had a bit of trouble with the geese. Judy Goodman instructed our photographer Andy to stalk them from the south, with the sun behind him. He duly stalked. Geese, however, are acutely sensitive to the movements of man. Whichever way and however he crouched and crawled they evaded him: his camera was forever presented with a host of departing tail feathers. We encircled the geese and drove them towards him but the light was wrong. We were becoming despondent.

Judy’s husband, Geoffrey, arrived at the bottom of the field. “Poor darling,” Judy commented, “he’s had a couple of teeth out.” A large, laconic man, Geoffrey trudged up the field. Brushing aside dental commiserations, he explained that you cannot force geese to do as you wish. If we did nothing they would come to us soon enough. It seemed that, much as Judy loved her geese, this fact had somehow eluded her in the 30-odd years the family has been raising what are generally considered the best geese for the table in Britain. “She won’t be told,” muttered Geoffrey as she tucked in his wayward shirt for the benefit of the photograph.

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The Goodmans’ farm is in Elgar country, a rolling vista of hills and streams, of market towns and farms stretching west of Worcester towards the borders. For all its proximity to Wales, you simply cannot get more English than this county. It is much less grand than Gloucestershire, less remote than Hereford – the likes of Kidderminster and Droitwich are on its borders – and less feudal than Somerset or Leicestershire. No wonder the Borsetshire of The Archers was based on this patch: Great Witley could easily be Ambridge while the cathedral city of Felpersham is a dead ringer for Worcester.

Judy decided to farm geese after a traumatic Christmas in 1981, when they realised that they had no goose for their Christmas lunch. Ever since Geoffrey took over the family farm in 1964 there had always been a few geese in the yard and there had always been one at the festive table. I don’t suppose they had thought much about it until they felt the lack of it. Once they started, there was no looking back and within 10 years the Goodmans had established a formidable reputation for their geese. When I ask why their birds are so good the answers, surprisingly, refer as much to the processing and packaging as to the quality of the birds.

Rowley Leigh (right) with Judy Goodman

Rowley Leigh (right) with Judy Goodman

The processing is indeed an act of love. The geese are plucked and waxed within an hour of the kill and then hung for at least a week. It is this hanging that gives them that umami quality of intense savouriness and length of flavour. Only after hanging are the birds drawn and “dry” cleaned (without water but wiped with cloths). They are then lovingly wrapped with herbs – copious quantities of thyme, sage and rosemary – and wax paper and set in their cardboard boxes. The customer care is obvious – the telephone rings constantly and Judy clucks away; some customers have remained loyal for all of the 31 years the Goodmans have been “overnight-delivering” their birds (Judy abominates the expression “mail order”) for the Christmas market.

For all these virtues, I would have thought the reason for the pre-eminence of their geese is obvious. The Goodmans look after their flock probably slightly better than they look after themselves. I don’t suppose they will be offended – I certainly hope they won’t – if I say there is a slightly shambolic element to both their farmyard and living quarters. An old trailer sits rusting in a yard and Judy is very pleased that we have chosen the one day in the fortnight that the cleaner comes in to give her a hand in the house. Both kitchen and sitting room are cluttered with ornaments, posters and pictures of geese.

The geese outside, meanwhile, are cosseted. Every bird is precious. The day-old goslings cost £4 – more than some people are prepared to pay for a fully grown chicken – and the Goodmans have to drive to Norfolk to get them. Once safely through the first six weeks of their lives, the geese then have acres of lush Worcestershire grassland to waddle around in, palliasses of straw to bed down in and a feed compound lovingly made up from the Goodmans’ own cereals on which to gorge themselves at breakfast and supper. We corral a squadron of birds so that Andy can photograph the bird in Judy’s arms. Geoffrey notices that one of them has managed to find the top of a tin can and trap it in its beak so he duly catches it and extricates the metal before the bird can do itself some harm. It is not only details like these but also the happy condition of the birds – look how spotlessly clean they are, the condition of their plumage and their general plump contentment – to know that the secret of their success is very good husbandry.

The cooking isn’t bad either. Judy’s goose is simply cooked: the one elaboration is to place the hot goose on a bed of winter herbs so that it gives a beautiful aroma when brought into the dining room. I carve it as one of Judy’s sons has instructed me to, horizontally towards the bone. The four of us – the Goodmans, myself and the always ravenous Andy – eat a mere half of the goose, our plates overladen with slices of goose, roast potatoes, red cabbage and apple sauce. It is moistened with a gravy that Judy has made “from the giblets and last night’s beef casserole”. We clink glasses and a quiet descends. There is peace in this particular valley. It will be a while before the Goodmans suffer another Christmas like 1981.

Rowley is the chef at Le Café Anglais

rowley.leigh@ft.com

For a slideshow, go to www.ft.com/goosefarm

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Salt cod brandade

Properly speaking this is a Brandade de Morue Bénédictine, referring to the monk’s habit of stretching the Lenten salt cod with potatoes. It makes an excellent snack to hand around after a morning walk, with the Christmas lunch still an hour or two in the offing. Perhaps best served in conjunction with some smoked salmon on brown bread and a rather classy dry champagne. The brandade can be finished in a food processor but only on the “pulse” button: it must not be too smooth and should retain a bit of texture.

Salt cod brandade

Serves up to 10

500g fresh cod fillet

1 tbsp rock salt

2 cloves garlic

sprigs of thyme

300g potatoes (a mash type, definitely not a new potato)

750ml milk

50ml olive oil

1 baguette

Stoned black olives

The night before, rinse the cod and place it on a dish sprinkled with some of the salt and the two crushed cloves of garlic and several sprigs of thyme. Sprinkle with the remaining salt, cover with film and refrigerate overnight.

Salt cod puree

In the morning, rinse the cod, the garlic and thyme under the cold tap and leave under running water for half an hour or several changes of water. Peel the potatoes and dice finely, soaking them in cold water to remove any starch.

Place fish, garlic, thyme and potatoes in a wide pan and cover with the milk. Bring to a very gentle simmer and cook very gently until the cod is just cooked. Carefully lift out the cod and continue cooking the potatoes until soft.

Combine cod and potatoes in a mortar (you may need to do it in batches) and pound to a purée. Return the mixture to a pan: it will be very stiff and will need to be let down a little with the cooking milk (if not too salty) and then enriched by beating in a little good-quality olive oil.

Slice the baguette into little rounds or ovals and fry them in a little olive oil. Spoon the brandade mixture on to the croutons and place an olive on top of each one. Serve forthwith.

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Roast goose

This recipe is mostly a distillation of Judy Goodman’s simple wisdom and expertise with the bird: I have interpolated a slightly more sophisticated approach to gravy. A 5kg goose will feed eight comfortably and 10 if necessary.

preparing a goose for roasting

Serves 8-10 (as do the trimmings)

1 large goose, 5kg-6kg

2 leek tops

½ lemon

3 cloves garlic

thyme, sage or rosemary

1 onion

½ carrot

1 stick celery

½ bottle white wine

½ litre chicken stock (or 1 cube)

Rowley Leigh and Judy Goodman prepare a goose for roasting

Season the goose inside with salt and pepper, add the leeks, lemon and crushed garlic, truss it well and put it on a trivet over a large roasting tray in which you have placed the chopped neck, wing tips and heart. Rub the skin of the goose with the cut side of a lemon and sprinkle with salt. Place in a medium-hot oven (180C) for an hour and a half.

Pour off any fat that has accumulated, saving it for the roast potatoes. Turn the goose on its trivet and roast for 20 minutes more. Lift the goose out on its trivet and keep in a warming oven. Pour off the fat again and add the sliced onion, carrot and celery to the giblets. Put the tray back into the oven for 20 minutes and then pour in the white wine, scrape up the juices in the pan and add the stock. Transfer this gravy to a saucepan and simmer gently. Turn the oven up to 200C.

Sprinkle the surface of the goose with a dessertspoon of flour and a little salt and white pepper and place back in the hot oven for 10 minutes. Strain the gravy into a sauceboat. Place the hot goose on a charger loaded with sage and thyme and take to the table.

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Apple sauce

Left to my own devices, I might omit the sugar entirely from my apple sauce but many would find that too tart. If using eating apples the sugar must be omitted entirely.

2 cooking apples

juice of half a lemon

1 tbsp sugar

4 cloves

pinch of nutmeg

½ stick of cinnamon

Peel, quarter and remove the cores of the apples and then roll them in the lemon juice. Place them in a saucepan with the sugar and spices, add a few tablespoons of water, cover with a buttered paper and stew very gently for half an hour, making sure the mixture does not get too dry. Mash the mixture with the back of a fork to make a good non-aerated purée. Serve at room temperature.

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Red cabbage

This is an exuberant, spicy red cabbage that will set off the goose to a nicety.

Putting vinegar over red cabbage

1 large red cabbage

2 onions

4 cloves of garlic

30g root ginger

3 red chillies

50g sugar

50ml red wine vinegar

1 orange

200ml red wine

1 cinnamon stick

4 star anise

red cabbage

Halve the cabbage and remove the core. Shred the cabbage very thinly. Peel and slice the onions thinly and chop the garlic, ginger and chillies very finely. Heat a capacious saucepan with two tablespoons of olive oil and stew these aromatics together for 10 minutes until soft. In a separate, large saucepan or frying pan, heat two more tablespoons of olive oil and fry the red cabbage on a high heat for five minutes, in batches if necessary. Combine the cabbage with the aromatics in the saucepan. Sprinkle the sugar over the cabbage and turn over a couple of times as you cook the cabbage on a high heat. Pour over the vinegar and evaporate most of it. Add the finely grated orange zest, together with its juice and evaporate most of this in turn. Add the cinnamon, star anise and red wine, return briefly to the boil and then cover the saucepan. Cook the red cabbage on a very low heat or in a slow oven (150C) for 1½-2 hours.

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Roast potatoes

Most people fail to get the best results by draining the potatoes before they are fully cooked, resulting in too much moisture trapped inside. The aim is to get a dry, fluffy texture.

roast potatoes

1.3kg large potatoes for roasting, such as King Edward, Desirée or Maris Piper

3 tbsp plain flour

150ml oil or fat from the roast

Cut the potatoes into small pieces – about the size of a golf ball – of irregular proportion (ie with round and straight sides) and cover with cold water in a saucepan with a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until just cooked. It is essential that they are not parboiled – and thus raw in the middle – nor falling apart.

Heat a large roasting tray in the oven with oil or fat. Drain the potatoes in a colander and sprinkle with the flour, tossing them gently so that they are evenly coated and to slightly bruise the surface. Tip the potatoes into the roasting tray, spread evenly, and return to the hot oven (220C). Turn the potatoes after 15 minutes, baste with any stray fat and cook, turning once or twice for even colouration, for a further half an hour. Drain the potatoes of any excess fat and return to the oven for five minutes before sprinkling with sea salt and serving.

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Kugelhopf

A cross between brioche and panettone, the kugelhopf is a fabulous sight at the table. It is a lighter alternative to a Christmas pudding, ideal with some poached fruit and some whipped cream or crème fraîche. You will, I fear, need the necessary mould and might indeed be tempted simply to buy a good panettone but will miss out on the swelling pride on producing one yourself.

kugelhopf

Serves up to 10

50g raisins

25g baker’s yeast

250ml milk

600g flour

100g sugar

2 eggs

+2 egg yolks

200g butter

100g melted butter

50g flaked almonds

slice of kugelhopf

Pour two cups of boiling water over the raisins and allow them to swell for a couple of hours. Warm the milk until lukewarm and mix with the yeast in the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add the flour and sugar and mix with a dough hook to form a rough paste. Add the eggs and continue to work to form a firm, elastic dough. Add the slightly soft butter in pieces until it has been absorbed. It should now be a shiny, silky dough. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to prove in a warm place for two hours. Add the raisins and stir into the dough, knocking it back in the process.

Brush the kugelhopf mould with half the melted butter and sprinkle the almonds over the bottom. Add the dough and cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rise for a further two hours. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Bake for 45 minutes, covering with foil to stop excessive browning. Unmould the kugelhopf and brush immediately with the remaining butter before allowing to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

For a slideshow of Rowley Leigh’s six Christmas recipes go to www.ft.com/rowleychristmas

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Bollinger 2002

Wines

After a sabre-dry champagne with the brandade, the wine for the goose is less obvious. With our goose we drank an Anjou (Clos de Rouliers from Richard Leroy) whose hint of residual sugar, rich apple fruit and dry finish was a perfect foil for the rich goose. Red wine drinkers should look for young wines with vigour and acidity rather than prized assets: a good Barbera not more than three years old would be ideal. With the kugelhopf, there are few sweet wines that will not respond. An Alsace Sélection des Grains Nobles would be the plutocrats’ choice. The Leighs might muck along with an Auslëse.

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