Why you should become a turkey egg convert
PUBLISHED: 17:00 29 September 2015 | UPDATED: 17:00 29 September 2015
Turkeys aren't just for Christmas; they're for eggs, too, say Sarah and Dave Hawkeswood. Katie Jarvis went to visit their flock, to find out why these eggs are being gobbled up by enthusiastic converts
Spring is in the air, up on the high Wolds of Oakridge. Dandelions the colour of yolks warp and weft into a carpet of deep yellow; yellow that meets and mingles with the blue of a cloudless sky to create a lush sward of green. As breezes tease out hazes of pollen, warmed by early sunbeams, a young turkey’s thoughts turn to…
“Stop it! Off right now!” says Sarah Hawkeswood, firmly removing this particular Lothario from his chosen damsel. She tuts. “He’s just showing off to the ladies.”
On the plus side, he’s incredibly handsome: a Norfolk Black, whose blue, red and black feathers fan out like a peacock. His snood (the fleshy bit on his forehead) is a vibrant red, filled with excitable, oxygen-rich blood; (when it morphs to deoxygenated blue, the girls can relax). The point is, it’s not easy being a turkey groupie; not only do the males dispense with flowers and chocolates, but this chap weighs around 40lb to the ladies’ 18.
“When they mate, they can damage their backs with claws,” Sarah says. “We’re going to have to move him elsewhere.”
Sarah might not be impressed with his amorous activities (the girls appear to be on the fence) but the indigenous Indians of the Americas – from where the birds originate – were far more taken. Many of their dances were inspired by strutting turkey displays; many of their headdresses were made from their multifarious feathers. Navajo legends tell that, when all creatures fled from the Great Flood by climbing bamboo, the wild turkey only managed the lowest branch; and the waters washed away the colours on its feather-tips.
Watching Sarah and Dave Hawkeswood’s flock of 120 females, gobbling, grubbing, gambolling round this two-acre plot in noisy harmony, it’s not difficult to see why the US claimed the turkey as its national bird, in heady competition with the bald eagle.
The more puzzling proposition is why the British are so inconsistent in their love affair. Despite the fact that its meat is rich in protein, chock-full of vitamins and minerals, we bring it out for one binge-day of the year, then go cold turkey for the rest.
While Sarah Hawkeswood is vegetarian – none of her birds are sold for meat – she is determined to spread the turkey gospel in the form of their eggs: gorgeous, cream-coloured ellipses, spray-painted with brown speckles. She puts a heavy, thick-shelled beauty into my hand. “Look,” she says, pointing out the different patterns. “Each egg has its own pigment; the ones that look similar will be laid by the same turkey. Some have lots of speckles; some hardly any at all.”
Twice the size of a chicken egg, they get bigger with each passing year of a turkey’s life. “Ours are in their third year now. It’s a bit of an experiment to see how long they’ll live – a turkey can go on into its 20s.”
The point is, of course, most female turkeys will be history by Christmas; and egg-laying wouldn’t naturally start until the following spring. Here, up on this grassy Oakridge field where they’re free to graze, they lay every 36 hours: “One egg at a time, in the same place. If you leave them, they’ll have a communal clutch. Each turkey will walk in, lay an egg, and walk out; then there will be three or four who allocate themselves as the broody ones, who pull the eggs in, make a big, communal nest, and sit on them all.”
A kindergarten, in other words. Do they notice when Sarah takes the eggs?
“They make a bit of a protest when I put my hands underneath but they soon forget about it.”
She and Dave sell at Cheltenham and Stroud Farmers’ Markets – under the name Phoenix Free Range – along with quail, goose, Indian runner duck, Cotswold Legbar and Burford Brown eggs. It took people a while to adjust to the idea of turkey eggs. Now, they’re being gobbled up.
“People in Stroud, particularly, are a bit more adventurous: it’s a great place to have a market. Most customers begin by loving the look of the eggs. Once they try them, they spread the word. We had John Torode visit the other week but, by the time he’d got to the stall, the turkey eggs had all gone!”
As she and Dave show me round the rest of the site, we’re greeted by curious turkeys which follow and chat – friendly to the last. “We’ve got some aggressive cockerels but I’ve never met an aggressive turkey. People can think they look scary but it’s just the birds showing off – they’re from the same family as the peacock: Galliformes.” There’s Gary, for example, who is especially genial. Dressed in designer gear – an iridescent mustard-red-gold – he insists on making our acquaintance. It’s in the genes: his twin brother, Bobby, once performed in Giffords Circus, though has since retired.
Dave, Sarah’s husband, specialises in show-birds (you probably don’t need telling that the couple met at a poultry show), breeding and selling for exhibitions. It’s a hobby but one at which he excels: two years ago, his Cuckoo Cochins took ‘best in show’ at Malvern. He shows me a chicken he’s created himself – a ‘Frizzle-Coated’: white as freshly-fallen snow, with curly feathers the texture of silk. “It took me seven years to produce birds like this,” he says. “There is a breed called a Frizzle but, unlike mine, it doesn’t have feathers on its feet. It’s all about genetics; you pick the best of the youngsters and keep on improving.”
The Hawkeswoods’ true ‘heritage turkeys’ – not the ordinary egg-layers but specialist breeds - are kept safely separate in roomy pens. Many are on the verge of extinction: allowing them to mate with other varieties would ruin the bloodline. Much thinner than the commercial birds – which are flightless, heavy and meatily double-breasted – these traditional breeds are real beauties. There are the Slates, feathers blue with black flecks; Narragansetts, named after the East Coast bay, with their silver-flecked breast. And true Norfolk Blacks (pure black, unlike the Hugh Hefner of the turkey world whom we met earlier, with his blue and red rogue feather-genes): “You can still see a slight shadowing of where they’ve got the wrong bloodline,” Sarah points out. “Over the years, people have let them fly round farmyards and they’ve bred with Bronzes.” And British Whites, which are so rare, only half a dozen people in the UK still have them.
Clearly, this is turkey paradise. If I were to go to an intensive, commercial breeder, what would I see that would horrify me?
“Almost everything,” Dave says. “Kept indoors for one thing, unless they were free-range - but very few are. The volume of them to the amount of land means they’re very crowded. Beaks cut right back, poor things.”
“And they feather-peck,” chips in Sarah. “Let me show you a sight you’ll never forget.”
She leads me to a pen containing newly-arrived ex-battery hens, whose wings are stripped to bare bone. A few have already died of shock. If these sad specimens were to peek over the top of the pen, they’d see their own happier future in the form of glossy, sleek-feathered chickens running round - former battery hens which have now recovered.
For Sarah and Dave, it’s all about the love of these birds though they hope, eventually, that the turkey-egg business will make money: it’s still early days. Even so, selling an egg for 50p, as Sarah does, is not nearly as lucrative as selling a whole turkey for the dinner-table.
She shrugs: “I could make a lot of money by selling them at Christmas but I couldn’t do that. It would be blood money. I would rather be poor!
“This all started because I had one pet turkey who laid an egg, and I just thought, ‘Wow! Look how beautiful it is! Why aren’t these in the shops?’”
She’s absolutely right. Aside from the list of yet more health benefits – lots of Omega numbers; barrels-full of good cholesterol; lots of carotenoids giving the eggs that deep, orangey colour – there’s the baking. I take them home and produce the best cakes ever. Seriously. Rich, risen, spongey cakes with a delicious taste all of their own.
And the best way to eat them?
“Poach them,” Sarah and Dave agree, “making sure the yolks are kept soft. Put them over fresh asparagus, in season. Grate some of your favourite hard cheese over the top, and sprinkle with sea salt.”
What else to add, except: Get cracking.
• To buy Phoenix Free Range turkey eggs, visit Cheltenham Farmers’ Market, 9am-2pm on the second and last Friday of each month, in the Promenade; or Stroud Farmers’ Market, every Saturday from 9am-2pm, in the Cornhill Market Place and surrounding streets.
• Sarah and Dave are part of the new Cotswolds Choice brand scheme, promoting landscape-friendly local products, led by Stephen Aiano on behalf of the Cotswolds Conservation Board. For more information, visit www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk