I’m not a massive fan of turkey for Christmas dinner. Or any other bird for that matter. Dry, bland, white. It just doesn’t do it for me. Give me a bit of rare beef or some succulent lamb any day. But when I was asked to try a Christmas cockerel from a farm close to me, I have to say I was quite intrigued. I mean, when have you had a cockerel for Christmas dinner before? Turkey probably, goose maybe, but cockerel? No, didn’t think so.
These aren’t just any cockerel. Fosse Meadows Farm near Lutterworth in Leicestershire is all about the welfare of the birds. They have chickens, turkeys and geese as well as cockerel – all dubbed free range and high welfare. We’ve all seen the scary programmes about battery-farmed birds – the appalling, slightly gross conditions that manifest themselves not only in the taste, but also in the moral grubbiness you feel as you cut into your chicken breast.
Fosse Meadows are confident that they’re doing something different to this. Nick Ball and Jacob Sykes, who lived and worked in London for 12 years as a fashion designer and property developer respectively, returned to the Ball’s family farm as the fourth generation to farm in Frolesworth. Their aim – to start a poultry business farming birds they would be happy to say were theirs, both for their flavour and welfare standards.
Their chickens are slow reared which means they’re grown for 18 weeks, four times longer than standard chicken. They’re reared in coloured sheds and fed an additive-free corn-rich diet with plenty of access to green pastures & hedgerows. None of that being crammed into dark enclosed spaces.
Their seasonal turkey (they’re a member of the Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association), geese and cockerels are reared with the same slow principles and Fosse Meadows are convinced that their traditional methods produce meat with better flavour and texture. Their motto is ‘a happy bird tastes better’, a claim I was going to test out.
Another thing they’re keen to spread the word about is the cockerel. As we’ve already mentioned, it’s not exactly your average Sunday dinner fodder, but Fosse Meadows are trying to introduce a comeback, selling them at farmers markets and online all year round, not just at Christmas. They’ve already had great reviews from far greater food peeps than me, but it seems not enough people are aware that there’s another option on the Sunday dinner or Christmas dinner tables. Not to mention its potential for fantastic classics like Coq au Vin.
Cooking the cockerel
So, enough of the background – what was this bird like to eat? For starters, it was pretty impressive uncooked, its smart box opening to reveal a neatly plucked bird ready for the oven. Oh, and a nicely-wrapped packet of the giblets too, ready for the gravy. Plus the instructions – always useful for an amateur like me.
You’ve got to cook cockerel long and slow – especially given its size. Our bird was about 4kg so we worked out it needed about three-and-a-half hours. The handy instructions suggested rubbing it with olive oil or butter and seasoning well, then squeezing half a lemon over, before putting in the cavity with garlic, carrot, celery and herbs. Keen to fully appreciate the taste, we kept it simple, rubbing with olive oil and seasoning then putting it in to roast.
One tip neither Mr M or I knew about was the suggestion to cook the bird breast side down for some of the time to allow the juices to soak into the breast. A great way of making sure you don’t get that dry stringy breast that is the exact reason I hate roast turkey. Other than that it’s just the case of baste, baste, baste before you get to the end of the cooking time.
I love Jamie’s gravy anyway but to add extra flavour, instead of using the potato water as we usually do, I put the giblets in a pan with carrot, onion, herbs and water and simmered for the same amount of time as the cockerel roasted, then used the water to make the gravy, along with the juice from the cockerel. Yum.
And there it was, our beautifully roasted, rather humongous, Fosse Meadows cockerel.
If I do ever have roast chicken or turkey, I shy away from the breast meat, preferring the richness and moistness of the legs and thighs. I’m pleased to say I branched out and tried both from this fabulous fowl – and I’m rather glad I did.
The breast meat was succulent and tender, a real pleasure to eat. But it was the darker leg meat for me that was the real winner. Not just rich but a real deep, gamey flavour. At this point I was thanking my lucky stars we had such a huge bird, so I could enjoy plenty of this manna from the poultry gods.
Of course, all this was doused in a river of our giblet-based gravy. I’m sure I’m not imagining it when I say I’m sure the gravy oozed cockerel flavour. I don’t know if doing the same with chicken giblets would have had quite a great effect, but you could really taste the gamey flavour in the gravy, making it a great flavour addition, especially to the breast meat.
Conclusion on the cockerel
As you can probably imagine, there was way too much bird for just me and the mister. Fosse Meadows recommend a 4kg bird can feed about six people, and even we can’t eat that much. But I’m a big fan of leftovers, so our taste test lasted about three days as we tried cockerel sandwiches (Jamie), cockerel and couscous (me), braised cockerel with mash and peas (both of us), and a fair bit of picking of the carcass.
I’m definitely a fan. The succulence of chicken, taste and depth of flavour of guinea fowl, and the size of turkey. It’s the best bits of each all in one bird.
Now listen. If you are a fan of getting a gargantuan turkey for as cheap as possible for Christmas or Sunday dinner, this is probably not for you. These guys aren’t cheap – you don’t get food that’s been produced in these kind of conditions for the same price as its mass-produced cousins, it just doesn’t work like that. This is about spending a bit more to get a lot better. It’s also about cutting into your Sunday dinner without that feeling that you’ve been somehow sullied inside by ignoring the horrific conditions an animal was put through before it hit your plate.
This was a seriously tasty bird, far tastier than any turkey (and many of the chickens) than I’ve had. Maybe they’re right, maybe happy birds do taste better….
I was sent a cockerel to review by Fosse Meadows but I wasn’t obliged to write a positive review. The cockerel we had would have cost £42.50. I know – not cheap. But that’s for at least six people remember. Plus, like I said above, sometimes you’ve got to pay more if you want better.