Turkeys at Paul Kelly’s Springate Farm near Chelmsford, Essex
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Mid-summer, apropos of nothing, I had a ridiculous thought. I suddenly realised I had no idea where turkeys come from. Yes, yes . . . I know. The male and female turkey copulate and then there’s an egg. I get that bit. But have you ever seen a turkey egg? Have you ever seen a turkey that wasn’t already the size of a small car?

Every Christmas, UK retailers sell about 10 million turkeys, yet for the rest of the year you’ll struggle to find turkey meat on the shelves. If, like many foodies, you favour a bird that hasn’t been frozen and is sold by an independent butcher, you’ll be used to ordering weeks in advance and joining an unseemly scrum to pick it up on Christmas Eve. Christmas involves a sudden surge of work for many different retailers and producers but for the farmer selling fresh turkeys, things must get pretty insane.

Paul Kelly lacks the tweedy rusticity of the stereotypical farmer. Tanned and with a distinguished crown of smartly trimmed silver hair, he could pass for a Hollywood leading man, were it not for an evangelical enthusiasm for poultry. He knows the business inside out and is an energetic cheerleader for it. More importantly, he welcomed me on to his Essex farm to watch the whole process, from egg to plate.

Kelly took over the family turkey business from his father in the 1980s. Originally the company bred “whites”, the big white-feathered turkeys that had become the standard in the UK during the postwar boom of the 1950s. People wanted big turkeys for Christmas but complained about the dark feather stubs left in the skin after plucking. Within a few generations, almost the entire national flock was whites, although families in the business, such as the Kellys, often kept their own flocks of older breeds for personal consumption. In 1984 the Kellys began buying up any flocks of surviving bronzes they could find to create their own bloodline. These would be premium birds, to be reared over a longer life cycle than the industry-standard 10 weeks.

The British are something of an anomaly in international turkey consumption. In France, small turkeys are an occasional variation at the dinner table at pretty much any time except Christmas; in Germany, Holland and the US, turkey meat is viewed as a cheap and desirable protein, often sold as mince or in small pieces and used throughout the year as a healthier substitute for red meat, pork or veal. In Britain we eat turkey on the 25th of December and for the rest of the year it’s overshadowed by chicken. However, Brits are prepared to pay a premium for their Christmas bird and a unique industry has grown to service this need.

The turkeys in July this year in the farm's “natural shed” – an overgrown old cherry orchard, where trees provide a natural canopy

It is the first week in July and things, frankly, could not feel less festive at the Kellys’ Springate Farm, near Chelmsford. The weather is gorgeous and we’re about to enter a metal shed. As we walk into the initial space I begin, for the first time, to appreciate the sheer scale of the proceedings. Turkey eggs are larger and a little more elongated in shape than your standard chicken egg. Here they are stacked in crates, many marked with letters or numbers in marker pen. Kelly explains the complicated code that indicates which farm the eggs came from, which breed and what date. Today’s delivery is from the three “supply farms” in Scotland, where they’ll produce 275,000 eggs in this year’s 12-week laying season. (Bear with me on the numbers . . . they’re going to get considerably bigger.)

The laying season runs from the end of April to mid-July, during which time each “brooder” bird will lay about 55 eggs — about four to five per week on average. Kelly’s operation includes the three Scottish farms plus two near Peterborough and four in Essex — a total flock of 34,000 laying birds. I ask, with a little trepidation, what happens to the brooders when the laying season is over. “They are all slaughtered in August,” says Kelly. “They go into pies and soups and a lot of the meat is sent abroad to the German and Dutch market, where there’s demand for cooked turkey meat. It’s tougher meat but very flavourful.”

As we talk, his staff carefully transfer the eggs from the transit boxes to metal racks a couple of metres tall. Each egg sits alone in a loose metal egg cup, alongside 99 others on a long tray, canted over to one side on a 45-degree angle. Kelly pulls a lever on the side of the rack and 1,500 eggs lurch alarmingly as the trays move 45 degrees in the opposite direction. In the wild, the brooding turkey would roll the egg regularly to prevent the yolk adhering to the shell. From now, until they hatch, every egg in the factory will be “rolled” every half hour.

“In April, we start collecting the eggs for about three weeks to build up a bank of them going into the season,” says Kelly. Initially they’re held at 11C, then as more eggs come in we bring them up to around 15C. The embryo won’t develop at that temperature.”

The eggs can’t be held in this suspended state for too long — for every day, after seven days of storage, there is a 1 per cent drop in “hatchability” — but this brief holding enables economies of scale for the next phase.

An egg marked with its farm, breed and date laid, left, and 'candling' – checking the eggs for viability

Kelly walks us through a dimly lit corridor, lined on each side with 13, three metre-high, fridge-style doors. A man is “candling” the eggs, one at a time, over a bright light source — looking through the translucent shell for the evidence that the yolk is fertile and contains a viable embryo. From this point onwards, the “wastage” rates drop to almost zero. A viable egg means a valuable turkey.

The trolleys of fertile eggs are wheeled in until there are about 40,000 inside; then the doors are closed. Over a couple of hours the temperature is brought gently up to 37.7C, at which point incubation restarts. After the first 72 hours, as the embryos develop and consume the yolk, the eggs are putting out so much heat that the incubators have to be chilled to prevent the eggs cooking. “A modern hatchery is all about cooling,” says Kelly. “We use very little heat in the factory. There are heaters in there but they’re only really needed for the first 72 hours.”

In 27-and-a-half days, all 40,000 eggs will hatch within two or three hours of each other. You can set your watch by it . . . and you can certainly schedule the hatching shift. As the birds begin to hatch they’re transferred to larger transport baskets and moved to the “maternity wards” — climate-controlled rooms where the chicks stabilise before they’re packed and shipped to the farms that they’ll grow on. At this hatchery, they’re producing 80,000 chicks twice a week and supplying all kinds of turkey operations.

“We hatch Tiny, Supermini, Supermini Bronze, White, Rolypoly, Rolypoly Bronze, Rolstad, Rolstad Bronze, Plumpy, Plumpy Bronze, Plumpy Bronze Plus, BBB,” says Kelly, rolling off the oddly named breeds. “In 1999, one of our competitors went out of business, so we took on their bloodlines. Plumpy and Roly Poly were originally trademarks for other companies.”

Newly hatched turkey chicks, left, and a group of young turkeys

This is what Kelly refers to as the “breed and hatch division” that will sell on the birds to anyone in the world who needs them. But it’s “the meat division” we need to see now, the part of the business that sustainably rears the pedigree KellyBronze birds for the UK Christmas market. We load into a battered open-top Land Rover and barrel through the Essex lanes, clinging on in something approaching terror.

Several miles from the hatchery, up a private lane and surrounded by agricultural land, Kelly drives us to a small patch of low forest. It’s surrounded by a waist-high electric fence and borders a field edged by thick hedges. In most commercial turkey-rearing businesses, the animals will be kept in sheds to protect them from the rain and predators but here, with obvious pride, Kelly shows us the “natural shed” where his turkeys will grow. It’s an old cherry orchard, massively overgrown with nettles, and picking around, eating the fallen fruit, grazing on the nettles or rooting in the ground for insects are the young turkeys.

These were hatched back in April from some of the first eggs available and already they are 20cm or so tall. They move together, the birds on the edge of the flock keeping an eye out for threats, but as we approach they cluster around us, gobbling in unison and expecting food. Kelly explains how the tree canopy provides weather protection, and the electric fence keeps out the foxes.

Intensively reared turkeys are sometimes brought to their huge size in as little as 10 weeks. Because their musculoskeletal structure is immature when they are already putting on vast percentages of fat, they can be deformed, have difficulty moving and will ultimately produce flabby, tasteless meat. Kelly’s birds will grow naturally to maturity over the coming months, developing strong bones and muscles before the final fattening phase.

Before we leave the farm, Kelly offers to show us the factory — the facility where the birds will be slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated, packed and shipped. We walk through a cluster of outbuildings, through a gate and are faced with a huge, scorched, concrete slab the size of a couple of football pitches.

“It burnt down a couple of weeks ago,” says Kelly. An accidental fire had caught the packing materials and the tanks of wax used to defeather the birds and the whole thing had burnt to the foundations. “We’ll be ready for Christmas,” he adds quietly. “We have no choice.”

It is mid-October and I’m back at Springate Farm. The weather is getting colder and the leaves of the cherry trees are starting to brown. The electric fence has been taken down and the turkeys are moving freely around the field. This doesn’t really begin to describe the experience of going among them. The birds are now about 60cm high but can stretch up to a metre, they are still moving as a mass, and have a weird way of all turning their heads at once in response to a noise.

Staff at Springate Farm checking and packing eviscerated birds earlier this month

They can fall silent, then one bird will gobble and within a nanosecond they’ll all have picked up the call. The sound moves around you like a wave and then falls away as quickly as it began. Kelly is in his element, stroking the birds, examining them, pointing out particularly fine traits or gobbling at them to gee them into a chorus. They are making a film of the flock today to put on the company website and Kelly crouches among them, letting them jostle and peck at him inquisitively. There’s something eerie about the birds en masse, the way they clearly display individual behaviour at the same time as responding almost as a single organism. The photographer decides to grab an aerial shot of the flock and prepares a small drone on the flatbed of the Land Rover. Kelly is already smiling as if he knows what will happen next and, sure enough, as the little device whirrs into the air, the flock instinct cuts in. Within seconds, the vast, seething mass of birds has evaporated into the trees and will not be moved back into the open. “They think it’s a hawk,” he says fondly.

The birds show an admirable talent for self-preservation but it’s clear that it would have to be a pretty ambitious bird of prey to tackle them. Kelly guides my fingers over the musculature on one bird and we can feel a solid packing of meat. He’s evangelical about the slow growing process but you can easily see how a less well-matured bird would have trouble holding up its own weight. It’s strange to think that, with Christmas decorations already appearing in the keenest shops, these guys have yet to enter the final part of their life cycle. They won’t “grow” much more, but they’re going to get fat.

Now it is late November. As we approach the spanking new factory, builders are still fixing trim strips to the outside of the structure. There’s a low, calm gobbling from the “lairage”, the holding pen where the turkeys are held overnight before slaughter. Today isn’t a slaughter day but we’re here to watch evisceration and packing. As Christmas approaches, the staff who’ve worked on other parts of the farm throughout the year move into the processing factory, along with up to 70 casual workers. The casual crew are almost all from Poland, from all kinds of backgrounds, but they come back, year after year, for six weeks of intensive work and a hefty pay packet. These days, any factory visit involves paperwork and we sign forms declaring that we have no illnesses and have not recently been in contact with any source of infection. There are white wellies, hairnets, white coats and beard snoods and, after a disinfecting footbath, we are admitted.

At the moment the line is running slowly. These are the first birds of the year and the new equipment is being carefully run in. Only one hanger in four contains a bird and the full crew will arrive tomorrow. This first batch of birds is for the Thanksgiving market. Two weeks ago they were electrocuted, bled and then “dry plucked”. Large feathers are removed by hand, easy-to-remove patches are taken off with plucking machines and, finally, the whole carcase is dipped in a tank of wax. This cools, sets and is then removed in a single piece, taking all but the last, very stubborn feathers.

Philip Regan, the plant manager, explains that everyone is keeping their fingers crossed for continued warm weather. “If we have a cold snap the birds will put on a layer of downy feathers and that increases the time it takes to pluck them,” he explains.

The turkeys in mid-October, almost fully grown but still adding fat

After plucking, the birds are hung — with their guts still in — at about 4C for up to two weeks. It’s this stage that really develops the flavour in the meat. Now, after hanging, the line is set up and everyone’s ready for the first run of the final phase. Regan points out the plucked breast of the bird hanging on a nearby rack. There are a few black feather stubs but, most impressively, thick, visible deposits of fat. This is what the birds have been developing since I last saw them — and it effectively makes them self-basting.

The feet are removed, along with the tough tendons, by a hydraulically powered extractor and the birds are hung, by their legs, from the line. One operator in whites, his face hidden in a blue mask, removes the head with a terrifying pair of powered secateurs and the bird moves slowly on. First the neck is separated, then the viscera scooped out with a spoon-like tool and dropped on to a table below. As the birds move slowly along, the pile of viscera underneath is moved along too, until it passes a masked vet. This contemporary haruspex must examine the viscera, and needs to be able to reject the relevant bird if they don’t look good. Once approved, the interior of the carcase is hoovered out with a high-powered vacuum “Lung Gun” and the viscera are passed on to be sorted, reunited with the neck and vacuum-packed into a giblet bag. Finally, the bag is thrust into the clean bird, which is wrapped, dropped into the branded box with cooking instructions and a thermometer, and wheeled off into cold store.

In the US, the Thanksgiving turkey is also a celebratory dish, but somehow expectations are different. Americans eat intensively reared turkey all year round. It seems to fit the American dream that the bird should be as vast-breasted and pumped as an ex-governor of California, but birds are brined to enhance flavour and filled with stuffings and dressings involving everything from oysters to cranberries. We’ve been lucky, in the UK, that the unique economics that result from eating the bird on only one very special day a year — and being prepared to pay a premium for doing so — have enabled businesses such as KellyBronze to develop, because it takes a lot of money and care to slow rear, hang and dry pluck a large turkey. This year, Paul Kelly bought his first farm in Virginia. He is only going to rear a few hundred birds to begin with, but if Americans catch on to the possibilities of this kind of slow, sustainable rearing — and the quality of bird that it can produce — then the sky could be the limit.

I arrived at Springate Farm with a firm set of prejudices about intensive “battery” poultry rearing and some naive beliefs about farmers’ wives hand-feeding favoured birds. As I followed the turkeys through their life I learnt that our national tastes in the UK have spawned a unique industry. We may have to use some very clever farming and some superb technology in meeting this one-day-a-year demand, but it seems possible to do it without compromising on quality — and that might just be the ideal combination.

I don’t eat turkey often but, when I do, I pay a lot for it and can expect outstanding quality and sustainability. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say that about all the meat we ate?

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

Turkey tips

1) Remove the wishbone before cooking — it makes carving much easier. If you’re good at avian surgery, you can also nick the hip joints from inside the cavity — and then remove the legs at the table with one impressive swish of the blade.

2) Don’t bother brining the bird in buckets of salt water — there’s no evidence it improves flavour. Instead, salt it liberally, inside and out, last thing on Christmas Eve.

3) Allow the bird to come up to room temperature before roasting.

4) Invest in a probe thermometer. Internal cooking temperatures are available online and are by far the best assurance of perfectly cooked meat.

5) Plan to “rest” the bird outside the oven for at least half an hour before carving.

6) Remove all the meat from the carcass before the end of the meal. Left to cool on the skeleton, it develops a flavour of fowly cardboard.

7) Please, please make the effort to buy a well-reared bird from a local independent butcher. If you’re making your biggest investment in the British butchery industry this year, make it count.

Photographs: Mark Mattock and Tim Hayward

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