It seems strange that one of the most traditional delights of the British autumn and winter table is so evidently of foreign, indeed exotic, origin, but the country has a long history of incorporating new introductions into its cuisine: think of the Romans bringing rabbits with them, and vineyards; think of the Vikings bringing the hardy Herdwick breed of sheep; of the medieval espousal of spices from the Orient.
The Norfolk Black Turkey probably originated in Mexico, though there is a possibility it might have come from further North on the continent. They arrived as bounty from the European colonisation of the Americas, and were well known in Britain by the mid-16th century, an alternative to goose for the rich man’s feasts, their superior flavour rendering options like bitterns, bustards and peacocks the stuff of history.
Norfolk and Suffolk were the ideal places to raise the birds, with a relatively mild climate for Britain, and in particular because turkeys, like geese before them, could be put out into the fields of wheat and barley stubble to glean the last few grains. East Anglia was also in easy striking distance of the lucrative London market, and for centuries huge flocks of the birds were driven to the capital, their feet tarred to protect them during the hundred miles or so of road from Norwich and the surrounding area.
The Norfolk Black is a distinct breed, smaller than the Cambridge Bronze. It became rare because farmers cross bred the bird to improve it: with less breast meat than the Bronze, and slower to grow, it was economically less attractive, but the fine grained and well flavoured meat these days makes it a sought after treat at Christmas in particular. Sadly there is still some consumer resistance to the black pitting of the skin – as with bread, white to many means superior, but so often means less flavour.
The Black with its slow growth – about six months to full maturity - doesn’t lend itself to intensive rearing, so has survived in free range conditions, on small farms and smallholdings. The varied diet and active life of free range birds adds to the flavour, and as a premium product the birds are likely to be hung for more than the week that is a minimum to let the flavour develop properly