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Beyond Organic: Hail the Heritage Breeds

Rural Intelligence Food
It was a Jane Austen-via-PBS moment: As I pass through a gate into the picket-fenced front yard of picturesque Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY, a dozen or so Karakul spring lambs scamper to greet me, playfully nudging me toward the front door where co-owner Peter Davies awaits.  Davies, a Yale-educated sometime English professor and theater director, has become, in recent years, deeply involved in raising heritage livestock.  He spends his days ordering piglets of distinguished lineage from the breeding facilities at Mount Vernon and selecting the optimal date to make a former man out of his British White baby bull, a breed believed by some to have been brought to England by the Romans and, others, by the Vikings.  Some of the yield of Turkana ends up in Manhattan.  They also have a loyal following among Hudson Valley gourmands, a cadre whose ranks recently swelled to include the Governor of New York State. 

When Davies, who still finds time to deal in Turkish textiles and kilim rugs, and his partner, attorney Mark Scherzer, bought their 39-acre Germantown spread in 2000, they intended farming to be a weekend avocation.  September 11, 2001 changed that plan.  With their Wall Street-area loft in shambles, they took refuge in Columbia County.  Before long, they were deep into heritage breeds. Now Davies usually spends at least four days a week at the farm. Scherzer, who still practices law full time, joins him on weekends

“Noah Sheetz, Governor Spitzer’s executive chef recently visited us,” Davies says.  Accompanied by a colleague, the young CIA grad has been touring local farms, searching for products to feature on the menus at the Executive Mansion.  (George Pataki, a local farm boy himself, is not known to have made any special effort in this regard.)  “So far we have gotten a contract for two batches of French meat guinea hens this summer, and an expression of interest in our pork and berries.”

Turkana Farm is not yet self-sustaining, though Davies and Scherzer have faith that break-even is on the horizon.  The one-time costs of bringing the physical plant up to par are now nearly behind them.  And there are some routine expenses they hope to one day reduce. The closest processing plant for poultry, for example, is two-and-a-half hours away near Oneonta.  If demand for products such as theirs continues to increase at the current pace, presumably someone will open a facility closer by.  But the real savings will occur only once they’ve cracked the code on breeding. 

It appears that animals raised by humans don’t know how to mother their young.  “We tried once with turkeys,” Davies says.  “Most of the eggs didn’t even hatch, and those that did soon died from neglect.”  So, for now, they buy day-old poults, or hatchlings, of heritage breeds such as Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Black Spanish and Narragansett, for a whopping $9.00 each and rejoice if 85% survive.  Add to that the cost of feed—organic grain from Lightning Tree Farm in Millbrook—and one begins to understand why their birds fetch a heady $6.00 a pound. 

Fortunately, it’s more than just meat we’re buying.  The advantages of organic and locally grown are well known.  In addition, there’s the land conservation angle: Davies and Scherzer have wrested land from the grasp of developers and revived a working farm—they deserve our thanks and support.  And, as Davies adds, “The only way to preserve these breeds and insure their continuity is to buy one and eat it.”  This is not so much a sales pitch as a creed.
Turkana Farm offers limited supplies of fresh heritage turkey, French guinea fowl, pasture-raised chicken, Rouen duck, Toulouse goose, Karakul lamb, Ossabaw pork, grass-fed beef, plus fruit and vegetables seasonally.  To join the Turkana Farms Green-E-Mail list, learn more, or place an order, contact:


Talking Turkey

Here’s what I learned from my first foray into roasting a heritage breed bird:

Heritage turkeys are not broad-breasted, so there’s better balance between dark meat and white.  According to my friend and heritage mentor Harriet Shur of Churchtown, one 15-lb. bird handily serves 8 adults and two kids with leftovers one day and soup the next.  Spencertown’s Kate Cohen, another old hand with heritage turkeys, reports that she got two meals plus soup for six out of a single 9 pounder.  On advice passed along by Davies from another Turkana customer, the chef at Savoy Restaurant in SoHo, I opted for two 8-lb birds instead of one large Tom.  What the smaller birds lack in presentation drama, they compensate for in ease of handling—imagine not having to wrestle with a slippery behemoth. Besides, they have an allure all their own.  Magnificent in full feather, even on the platter they looked more dignified—call it Jeffersonian—than bulbous-breasted birds.  One understands why Benjamin Franklin wanted to make them the national bird.

Turkana supplies instructions for both low- and high-heat roasting.  For what it’s worth, here’s how I did mine:

After brining the birds for 24 hours, I piped some flavored butter  under the breast skin (see update, below). On the advice of the chef at Savoy, I didn’t stuff the cavities (vegetables, herbs, garlic, lemon, yes; but bread dressing baked separately for 30 minutes in a gratin dish).  Taking advantage of the greater than usual deposits of subcutaneous fat, I started roasting the pair bottom side up at 425 degrees, then flipped them once the exposed skin had turned a crispy mahogany brown, about 45 minutes later.  When the breast skin had also darkened (approximately another 45 minutes), and the leg moved easily in its socket, I removed them from the oven to rest.  I couldn’t swear there wasn’t a trace of pink in the thigh juices—I hadn’t bothered finding out if it had reached 165 degrees in its thickest part.  But, I’m please to report, nobody got sick, and the meat had a silky texture and subtle flavor that even the best free-range, organic birds can’t touch.

Update:  Since last Thanksgiving, I’ve experimented further with roasting heritage turkeys, and my best advice now is to skip the part about piping butter under the skin.  Just blast it with high heat, flipping mid-way through.  Don’t baste, don’t tent, don’t cover it once it’s resting outside the oven after it’s done.  Your reward for all this indolence: skin that’s as crisp as a new dollar bill and meat that is moist and succulent.  Go figure.  Make sure your oven is clean to start and expect to clean it again right after.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 01/24/08 at 01:38 PM • Permalink