The Christmas goose, ah yes, the picture above brings back some childhood memories of that beast. I can remember one run up to the festive season when, at the age of ten, I took great delight in helping stuff one particular goose. There were always a few geese on the farm and they used to be kept in the ‘home platt’ which was next to the house. The pathway to which had a barn on one side and a wooden fence on the other. It was always like running the gauntlet to get to the house because ‘Jake’ the dog was, when not working, chained by the barn. Now Jake was a friendly soul and good with the livestock except when he was chained up, this he took exception to and would vent his annoyance in a most unsociable way. He knew the exact length of his chain down to the millimetre which as long as you walked up the edge of the path was fine. But inadvertently stray into the danger zone and he knew you were fair game, the dog would wait until you passed and then dart out and ‘playfully’. yeah like hell, nip the back of you legs. Anyway, this particular year getting into the house was made even more interesting by six aggressive geese. The pathway was about 30 feet long and about 3 feet wide and these birds soon came to realise that if they stuck their 2 foot long necks through the wooden rails there was a fair chance they could peck you. But even more disconcerting was the fact that they would wait until you were halfway along the path before doing so. Worse than that, these geese knew exactly when take off had to be from anywhere in the field to make a scheduled landing at the halfway point. About six feet from the fence the ‘squadron’ would divide into two with one half going to your left and the other to your right in a perfect pincer movement. So imagine, 10 years old, in shorts, wandering up to the house, first you had to check to see if the canine was attached to the end of the chain and then crane your neck over the fence to see where the geese were. If you were unlucky the dog was innocently laid by the barn and the geese were halfway down the field, all seemingly oblivious to your presence until you entered the ‘killing field’. This meant somewhere along the line you were in for some grief, having dodged the dog which you knew you had done by the loud chink of the chain, creak of the barn and yelp of the dog. There was no time to be smug because the next thing you experienced was a white cloud squawking, honking and hissing across the field with wings flapping madly and if you weren’t quick enough they had you pinned against the wall. To this day I can vividly recall those orange bills wide open, the serrated gums, and the wagging tongue. If the ‘Old Boy’ was in the field he would stroll over grab a neck in each hand and march the ‘whirling dervishes’ back across the field. He would then say, “dawn’t ee iver try this, I ‘ave a seen one of these blimmers break a man’s arm with they wings”. I couldn’t wait for the day when I was big enough to try but sadly that day never came because by the time I was of the required stature there were no geese on the farm. So yes, that year in particular I took even greater delight in helping the ‘old lady’ to shove handfuls of sage and onion up that goose’s back passage.
But at one time many Dartmoor farms kept geese especially for sale at the famous Tavistock Goosey Fair. Those that were not sold at the fair would go to local butchers, hotels or households for the Christmas dinners. But meat was not the only consideration, the feathers and down would be used for stuffing pillows and mattresses which make for a comfortable bed. Goose fat or grease was used for medicinal purposes and was said to ease cough symptoms when ribbed on the chest. It was said that witches used to smear themselves with goose grease in order to be able to fly. The fat was also used for basting roast vegetables on Sundays which would result in nice crispy ‘tatties’. The eggs were used in cake mixtures and occasionally omelettes and other cooking uses.
Geese, as related above, make superb house guards and as the old tradition goes the geese that were kept in the temple of Juno on Rome’s Capitoline Hill saved the city by raising the alarm when the Gaul’s attacked. On some farms there would be goose-house near the back door and it was in here that the ‘guard gander’ was kept. Another use the geese were put to was grazing the livestock fields as it was thought they picked up the liver fluke which could infect cattle and sheep. In other parts of the country gaggles of geese would be put out on the high ground to graze in the same hope. On some of the uplands of Wales gaps in the walls were built, similar to the Dartmoor sheep creeps, to allow the geese to move from field to field whilst keeping the livestock in, these are called ‘Leckys’. In earlier time the goose feathers were often used for writing quills and earlier still as arrow flights.
In weather lore geese were often used for predicting and forecasting, it was said that if they cackle it’s a sure sign of approaching rain alternatively if they honk then a dry spell is imminent. If skeins of wild geese fly high then fine weather can be predicted but if they fly low then stormy days are ahead.
So, now the really useful thing about a goose – Traditional Dartmoor Roast Christmas Goose! If you fancy a change from the usual boring turkey, why not plump for a juicy goosey? Here is how the ‘Old Lady’ used to do it:
First get the ‘Old Boy’ to dispatch that creature which has made everybody’s life hell for the past 11 months. Then pluck, candle and draw, saving the down for re-stuffing the pillows. Having done this heartily stuff the body with whole onions and sage whilst remembering all those sleepless nights the neurotic bird caused. Then tie its legs together to stop the stuffing from coming out and smear the whole bird with lard. Having successfully done that place the bird in an oven to slowly roast – 150 – 170º (gas mark 2 -3), allowing 12 minutes per 1 lb (450g). Halfway through the allotted cooking time take the bird out of the oven and baste thoroughly then thickly coat the carcass with seasoned flour and put back in the oven. For the remainder of the cooking time, take the bird out every half an hour and re-baste and re-coat with flour. Depending on the cooking time, add potatoes and parsnips to roast in the goose fat until crispy.
When cooked, drain off the fat and keep for further use at a later date for basting roast potatoes and parsnips – or for when you have a nasty cough. You can then carve and plate-up either with the flour crust or without depending on your tastes. Serve with the stuffing, roast potatoes and parsnips, traditional Brussels sprouts, swede, carrots, peas, and apple sauce and gravy. Oops, forgot to mention the gravy, dash out into the kitchen and take some of the goose fat you carefully saved. Stir in a little flour and add half a pint (275ml) of Oxo chicken stock and heat until it’s to your liking – either hedge-runner or paste. The reason for using the Oxo is that I omitted to mention that the giblets should have been kept to make the stock but the dog has now eaten them. But remember to keep them next Christmas – because I won’t!