The patriotic fervor that informs our choice of turkey for the American holiday feasts ignores one point of nature that the Old World has long remembered: it is the goose itself that has determined when to grace our festive table. The gosling hatched in May gobbles grasses until its dark meat reaches a peak for oven and carving knife in December.
Jim Schiltz, who farms the birds in South Dakota, says, "Geese force you to raise them naturally," he says. "They just lay eggs in the spring and you harvest them in the fall." Their diet is similar to cattle to which he also compares their taste.
As well as offering a taste alternative with its preponderance of dark meat, the goose is the one poultry variety that is close to a true herbivore—it eats no insects or worms, says Frank Reese, who raises "unimproved" breeds on 160 acres in central Kansas. He traces the lineage of his pasture-raised birds back at least 100 years. Of his three breeds, Reese deems the French Dewlap Toulouse the "king of geese." It's the largest (10 to 12 pounds when oven-ready) and the darkest. High fat content makes for rich flavor, but when roasted on a rack, the fat melts out. An additional treat is the heavy bird's large liver. "The original foie gras," he calls it.
Oregon's David Holderread tempts connoisseurs with tales of breeds so rare that the only way to acquire a bird may be to befriend someone with a home flock. The Sebastopol goose, which originated near the Black Sea, possesses a gene that endows it with both exotic curly feathers and lots of meat. He's even tasted the Shetland goose, once near extinction. His verdict: "Moist, very dark, fine-grained meat. The bird is only seven or eight pounds, but the amount of meat is similar to a broiler chicken." Holderread sees goose not as a source of huge portions, but as a "dish to savor."
Rudi Scherff, proprietor of the gemütlich Student Prince restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts, grew up eating goose at Christmas. "We would stuff the goose with a whole onion and two whole apples—a treat when the bird came out of the oven." His recipe for dressing: breading combined with chestnuts or walnuts, along with dried plums, apricots or cranberries soaked in Port or Madiera. Add goose fat and cook alongside the roasting bird. "Plate the fowl in the kitchen away from prying eyes," Scherff advises. "Present the relatively small portions with ample dressing and gravy." As a bonus the chef can sauté and eat that liver as a reward for his work.
Visit www.reeseturkeys.com, www.schiltzfoods.com and www.heritagefoodsusa.com.