Is there going to be a shortage of turkeys in Norfolk this Christmas?
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For farmer Rob Morton, the tinsel has barely been packed away before he starts thinking about next Christmas.
At Morton’s Family Farm at Skeyton, they rear free-range Norfolk Bronze birds that become the centrepiece of Christmas dinners across the county and beyond.
“In February-March we start thinking about Christmas and put an order in for our poults which we get in June and rear on right through to December time,” he says.
“As of now the birds are roaming round outside and growing all ready for Christmas.”
But this year, it’s not just his preparations for the festive season that have started early – with talk of potential supply issues of Christmas goods including food, his customers have already been getting their orders in.
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“Our order book is open,” says Rob. “Our website has been open for orders for two weeks and we’ve had quite a lot in already, probably the most we’ve had over the years at this time of year.”
As he explains, there is a combination of issues which could potentially affect supermarket supplies this Christmas.
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“We’re already hearing the rumours that there are fewer birds being placed in the industry that we know of that are going to the supermarkets and the supermarkets may be short of birds at Christmas,” he says.
“And then we run up against the labour issue, which is a common factor throughout the food industry – you may have the turkeys, but if they can’t get them processed there are going to be issues there.
“Because we’re small, we’ll be okay – we can manage with limited staff, but the larger processors, some of the factories are struggling at the minute, they’re having to cut capacity down because they can’t get the labour to process. And then you run into the haulage side of things as well.”
As, fingers crossed, families and friends will be able to come together again for the festive season after last year’s celebrations were scaled back because of Covid restrictions, there is an added incentive to start preparations early.
“We think more people will be at home again this Christmas and because they obviously missed out last Christmas there will be more people wanting to get the family together and have a big celebration. And a big celebration normally means that they will need a big-ish turkey for the whole family,” says Rob.
In addition to their mainstay, the free-range Bronze turkey, Morton’s are also doing a small trial of a cross between a Norfolk Black and a Bronze, which has a slightly gamier flavour.
“We rear on right through to December time, so they’re 24 weeks old as opposed to some supermarket birds that are only 16 weeks old. Ours are fully matured birds and then they’re processed on the farm,” he says.
A turkey is always the star attraction on Rob’s Christmas table, although last year it was touch and go whether they’d get one – after all their customer orders had been fulfilled there were only two turkeys left.
“Last year was a once in a lifetime year. Everything just went and there was nothing left – people were scrabbling around for turkey everywhere,” says Rob.
“What I’d say to customers is, if you know you’re having Christmas at home and you know you want a turkey, you may as well start planning now and get the centrepiece booked and work around the rest of it.”
At Old Hall Farm at Woodton near Bungay, they’ll be opening their Christmas order book at the end of September, and owner Rebecca Mayhew also recommends that people get their turkey and other Christmas meat organised early.
“I think this year will be interesting. Because we all missed out on it last year, I think that people are really going to go for it.
“So one thing I’d say to people is be organised, get your order in as early as possible.”
At their farm shop, turkeys come from about three miles away at Darrow Green Farm and from Godwick Turkeys in west Norfolk.
Many of us order a bigger bird than we actually need, then struggle to find ways to use up the leftovers. Old Hall Farm’s order form comes with a chart which tells customers how much they might require.
“If you’re looking for a turkey to serve four to five people then you’re looking for round about a 4.5kg bird,” says Rebecca.
“If you’re looking to feed 10 or 15 people then you need somewhere between 7kg and 8kg. You can get quite a lot of meat off a turkey.
“When you order, speak to your butcher, who will be able to give you good advice.”
Of course, you don’t have to buy a whole turkey. Cooking a Christmas dinner for a houseful of people can be stressful, but there are alternatives available which can make it easier.
“One thing I would say to people is that if you really enjoy cooking, get the whole bird,” says Rebecca.
“But if you want something less complicated, a turkey crown works really well and then you’ve got less of an issue with leftovers and it’s easier to carve, and it’s easier to cook.”
At Old Hall Farm they also do a turkey roll, which comes ready stuffed and wrapped in bacon, which can go straight into the oven.
When it comes to alternatives, some of Rebecca’s customers opt for goose or for something really different, guinea fowl.
“A lot of people have a big chicken. We’ve got a couple of suppliers that grow extra large chickens. They will be four and a half kilos, almost as big as turkey,” says Rebecca.
“And then obviously beef is another popular meat, so if people are looking for something different then we always have Jersey beef on the table.
“A lot of people are thinking about their carbon footprint, so if you want to have a really sustainable Christmas then what you ought to really have is pasture fed beef because they won’t have been fed anything apart from grass.
“As well as being more nutrient dense it’s better for the planet as well.”
And what will be on Rebecca’s Christmas table this year?
“On Christmas Eve we have gammon. For Christmas Day the children always choose turkey and we make gammon and turkey pie with the leftovers.
“If it was just myself and my husband we’d probably have beef.”
Fresh or frozen?
If you really want to get ahead, and you’ve got a big enough freezer, then you could buy a frozen turkey (or a fresh turkey and freeze it) now, ready for December 25. There is no difference in quality between a fresh and a frozen turkey.
Make sure that you check the cooking instructions on the packaging well ahead of time.
Some turkeys can be cooked from frozen if the manufacturer’s instructions say so, but bear in mind that it’s quite likely that your turkey will have to be defrosted before it goes into the oven.
And if so, it needs to be defrosted thoroughly to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
If the turkey is not fully defrosted, it might cook unevenly, which means that harmful bacteria can survive the cooking process.
If your turkey is large it might take longer than you’d think to thaw out, so allow plenty of time.
According to the Food Standards Agency, turkeys should be defrosted in the fridge rather than at room temperature.
Make sure that your fridge is set to 5C or lower – you can get a fridge thermometer to check.
A large turkey weighing 6-7kg could take up to four days to fully defrost in the fridge.
If there are no instructions for defrosting your turkey on the packaging, you can work out how long it will take to thaw completely.
The Food Standards Agency recommends allowing around 10-12 hours per kilo in a fridge.
Always defrost your turkey in a container large enough to catch any juices to avoid cross-contamination with other food in your fridge.