Our season of goodwill

By Simon Hughes, Great Clerkes Farm Foods

HERE in the north west corner of Essex our family has been rearing free-range poultry at Great Clerkes Farm, Little Sampford for three generations.

My father and grandfather moved here from a smallholding near Great Dunmow in the years following the Second World War.

The 200 acres of arable crops and lush green meadows are home to the geese and chickens who spend their days outside on the grass leys. But at night all the birds are closed in straw filled barns safe from the perils of Mr Fox.

Until the late 1970s our family also reared beef and pork. It was around then that my father, Paddy, began to raise a few geese for the Christmas market. That was a time when there were very few geese around as the turkey had come to dominate the festive dinner table.

We started off with small numbers to see how the geese would fare on the chalky boulder clay in our part of Essex. From the humble beginnings of 50 geese in the first year, the numbers have gradually increased to around 1500 now – helped no doubt by customers discovering the delicately scrumptious taste only a goose can provide.

Around the country each year more people are choosing a goose as an alternative to turkey you can buy and eat through the year. After all, fresh geese are only available from Michaelmas in early autumn to Christmas and, of course, goose was the traditional Christmas dish through the centuries.

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The geese arrive on the farm as day-old goslings from the Norfolk Geese hatchery at the end of June and, as with the chickens, when they are young they live under heat lamps in the barns. They are fed on a specialist goose crumb, before moving on to a diet based on wheat that we grow on the farm.

When they are old enough the geese spend their days happily outside grazing on meadow grass and any fallen fruit from the trees around the farm. This can be from only a few days old – weather permitting. The geese love to inspect anything in their path and can often be found tackling any farm machinery in their field, loosening nuts and bolts and dismantling fences!

Geese are wonderfully inquisitive birds, slowly dismantling any object left out in their meadows. Like a glacier or river, it seems they like to use time and pressure to destruct all in their path!

Our chicks also arrive from the hatchery as day-olds and we raise them on a bed of sawdust and straw which is refreshed every day. For the first week they live under gas or electric brooders at a temperature of about 29⁰C.

The temperature is then reduced over a fortnight until the house temperature is similar to that outside. As soon as they are old enough - and depending again on the weather - they are able to spend their days outside if they wish to. In a good summer this can sometimes be when they are as young as five days old.

As we produce them over a longer growing period than many poultry farms, the chickens have more time to enjoy the outdoors and develop a truly succulent flavour. We take great care to ensure high welfare standards for the birds... we’re only happy when they’re happy! The straw and their food is either produced on our farm or sourced from our neighbouring farms or local feed mills.

Our geese have a wonderful, full flavour and a high meat yield. Goose meat is very different to turkey or chicken – first-time consumers are often surprised how different it is. Goose is renowned for its flavoursome, moist meat that is rich and firm. The fat comes as a bonus – there nothing better for roasting potatoes and parsnips with the Christmas meal.

It was indeed these very qualities that startled the palate of Heston Blumenthal in a blind taste test into selecting our geese for his BBC television Christmas special and naming them as the tastiest in the land.

On the farm we have also developed goose sausages and burgers along with smoked goose breast which has a light and delicate flavour. The main incentive for developing these products is my own desire to gourmandise only the most delectably palatable products. It’s a purely selfish desire to delight in my every meal.

We have some of the region’s finest butchers among our customers, along with farm shops and restaurants, and we also sell into London. We do an increasing amount of farmgate business, and internet sales are growing rapidly, too, through our website (www.greatclerkes farmfoods.co.uk) with deliveries by a chilled courier company to customers, both locally and nationwide.

Many of our customers choose to come to the farm to collect. We find that people often enjoy a drive out in the countryside each year to a picturesque farm - it’s part of the lead up to Christmas. We even have one nonagenarian who drives quite some miles in a Nissan Micra car each year to have a look around. Perhaps she likes to check we are running the farm as she would imagine, then she’ll eat a mince pie in the shed with us. In recent years come blanket snow or impenetrable blizzard, she arrives regardless, much to all our seasonal joy.

In addition to the geese and chickens, we also now have Aylesbury ducks and we hope to be hatching our own guinea fowl soon.

Along with our Christmas poultry, our product range continues to grow as we spend time each month developing and perfecting each dish. It has to be good enough to satisfy our palate and that of a group of friends we get to taste and comment on each recipe idea.

All our ingredients are sourced locally, searching for the best to complement our own products. We smoke our own meat on the farm, and we produce our own smoked goose breast, which is rapidly becoming our biggest seller. Sold by the packet, this wonderful, delicate, smoky meat is the perfect starter or light snack, best served with a selection of pickles and salad leaves.

We hand-make delicious chicken meals from chicken kievs and escalopes to goujons, stuffed breasts and thighs

More products will be developed in our kitchen late into the dark winter nights. A recipe book containing the countless poultry dishes would be a heavy tome indeed!