A Christmas Goose
What the Judges Say
The writing is rich in flavor and imagery, sharing tasty tidbits of sustainable goose rearing and information on the best cuts to serve to guests. I happily read the article beginning to end, nodding along with the history and enjoying the maker story.
Reviving a Holiday Tradition
"There never was such a goose.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
From his Rye, New Hampshire farmstead, Jim Czack, a poultry farmer whose business is called Elevage de Volailles, is working to revive the true meaning of Christmas, one goose at a time.
Czack’s quest started about 10 years ago when he went looking for a goose to prepare according to his family’s East Prussian tradition, roasted to a lacquered brown finish with rich, succulent meat underneath. There would also be prune and apple stuffing, a spiced wine, cherry and black currant sauce, root vegetables roasted in goose fat, and homemade buttered spätzle to compliment the main attraction.
A properly prepared Christmas goose is a labor of love, says Czack, an undertaking that requires some time and attention to pull off with aplomb. It’s a gift that honors both your loved ones sitting around the table and the bird sitting on the platter.
“You don’t just stick it in the oven and wait for the plastic stick to pop out,” he explains.
You season the bird a day in advance and chill it. Geese typically weigh in around 12 pounds naked, taking up quite a bit of refrigerator real estate already especially close at this time of the year. You also need to carefully prick the bird’s skin all over with a sharp implement, without puncturing the flesh, so the copious amount of fat reticent of all waterfowl drips slowly from the meat as it roasts, basting it all the while. You let the bird rest while you use rich fat to cook its accompaniments.
In his opinion, the geese available for the job when he began his search were simply subpar. They measured up to neither his taste memory nor his locavore objectives as most made their way – frozen, not flying – to New Hampshire from either North Dakota or Down Under.
So in 2008 he raised eight geese, hatching them around Father’s Day and letting them mature a full 36 weeks. The commercial standard is to slaughter the birds after 16 weeks, but Czack raises his Embden geese (a great barnyard breed with roots that go back to Holland and Germany) for quality, in their natural cycle, not quantity which requires manipulating the birds to breed more quickly. He cooked up one bird from that first flock for his own Christmas feast, selling the remainder to friends and family.
Geese factor into sustainable agriculture on three planes. First, geese are not one trick ponies. They can yield up to four products: eggs, meat, rendered fat and downy white feathers. Secondly, when they spend their days on pasture gleaning food from already harvested fields, their webbed feet, which span between five and nine inches depending on their age help flatten crop residue (materials like stalks and stubble, leaves and seed pods left behind) into the ground, contributing to soil fertility. Czack’s geese help with that particular task at Tuckaway Farm in Lee. And lastly, the meat is so rich, that small portions go a long way in satisfying even the hungriest of carnivores.
As good as geese are for sustainable agriculture practices and as popular as goose has been historically throughout Europe, the idea of making it the centerpiece at Christmas dinner has been slow to take off stateside due in part to America’s penchant for its national bird, the turkey. The second reason American eaters sometimes avoid goose lies in its reputed strong taste and fatty nature.
“That’s the reputation of badly cooked goose,” says Evan Mallett, chef/owner of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, adding that many goose haters he meets have a story to tell about having to eat it when it was ill prepared.
Cooked right, goose meat is rich and glorious. “A rare goose breast is a great substitute for a fine roast beef around the holidays,” says Mallet, who for eight years now has featured goose (many of the birds sourced from Czack) on his Christmas Eve menu. Mallet confits the goose legs in their own fat and marinates the breast meat in an everchanging combination of orange peel, cloves, and horseradish. He then simply sear and pan roasts it because “its luxurious flavor doesn’t really need a lot of manipulation.” Each diner gets a portion of confit and sliced breast meat, both of which are dark in color naturally.
Czack is making headway in getting more geese on more tables over time. Up from those first eight birds, in 2012 he reared and processed a dozen alongside his flocks of White Pekin ducks and Chocolate turkeys. He upped the count to three dozen in 2014, selling out before Thanksgiving. This year he raised 45 geese. All but a dozen were spoken for by September 1st.
“Demand tells us that 50 is not enough,” says Czack. He hopes to reach 200 in 2016. He acknowledges that goal represents a big leap from his current flock count, but is confident it can happen if he acquires enough breeding stock to make it so.
“Every Christmas meal should have presence. In my mind, that’s a goose. A big, fat goose.”
This story was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Edible New Hampshire.