Putting the Chris into Christmas
PUBLISHED: 12:20 01 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:20 01 December 2015
Linda Duffin meets Chris Mobbs, the man who’s raising the bird she and her family will enjoy this festive season
Anyone who thinks it’s okay to keep turkeys cooped up indoors 24 hours a day hasn’t seen free range birds waiting to get into the fields. They’re like shoppers on the first day of the sales, squawking with excitement, running, jostling and flapping to be first through the doors. The noise is deafening.
They are endearingly inquisitive and trusting, too, crowding round you and pecking at anything shiny. I rather regretted the sparkly decorations on the rear pockets of my jeans, though I suppose I can now say I have been goosed by a turkey. I will have my revenge on Christmas Day. Sentiment only goes so far in our food orientated family.
The Mobbs family has been farming in Cratfield since the early 1900s. What was once an old-fashioned mixed Suffolk farm is now wholly given over to the rearing of turkeys and guinea fowl. Chris Mobbs grows 90% of the birds’ feed in his fields and solar panels on the roofs of the farm buildings mean he is almost self-sufficient in electricity production too, to heat the sheds when the birds are young.
When I visit in October, the birds are old enough to go outside, but aren’t yet hardy enough to be left out round the clock, so at nightfall they get tucked back into bed in the roomy sheds. Closer to Christmas they will be outside, if they want to be, 24 hours a day.
“It’s a wellbeing thing,” says Chris. “We all benefit from sunshine and fresh air and the turkeys are no different. If you shut them in a darkened shed with only artificial light it’s not a natural environment. This way, if it’s wet they can come in, but we don’t force them, it’s up to them. We’re trying to rear them in a way that’s close to how they would live in the wild, but obviously on a commercial scale.”
Chris has just over 5,000 birds this year, all reared from day-old chicks, and is planning to expand that by another two or three thousand next year. But little else has changed at White House Farm over three generations. “The thing we’ve always stayed with is free-ranging. When it became all the rage we wondered what all the fuss was, because we’ve always let our turkeys outside, we’ve never ever shut them in. And we’ve always used the wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans or whatever we’re growing on the farm, we’ve always used that home miller mix in the ration, which in this day and age is virtually unique. If my grandfather came back now he’d say yes, the numbers have increased, but in terms of what we feed them he’d notice very little change.
“On top of that, we’re producing all our own electricity in daylight hours, making us virtually self-sufficient. You use a lot less electricity to brood a turkey than gas heating. It means very low food miles and the environmental impact is very, very low, which is important to our customers. It’s part of what they’re buying into.”
Chris sells to butchers, farm shops and direct to customers all over East Anglia. My Suffolk in-laws reckon themselves to be turkey connoisseurs and they love Chris’s birds. You could say he puts the Chris into Christmas, if that doesn’t sound too impious. I’ve got into the habit of ordering my turkey when I see Chris at the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, always a bronze and always a whopper as we like plenty of leftovers for Boxing Day and beyond. I’m what he and his wife Judith call a Sally – Same As Last Year.
Chris attributes the quality to the home-grown feed, fresh air and exercise and to the method of processing.
“We dry pluck, which means the bird will hang a lot better than if it’s wet plucked, when it has to go straight into zero-degree temperatures or less. After all, it’s a game bird you’re dealing with, and it needs to hang to give it texture and flavour. The birds hang for 10-21 days at a controlled temperature, plucked but not drawn – they’re a sealed unit at this point – and we finish them just before the customer comes to get them. People say ‘turkey doesn’t normally taste like this’. They expect it to be bland and it isn’t. It’s got a real flavour to it.”
And the giblets are included, with strict orders not to throw them away because, says Chris: “They make a superb gravy.” I can smell that Christmas dinner already.