… And the goose is getting fat

05 Dec 2003

Thursday lunchtime in deepest rural Worcestershire and I am about to tuck into a goose roasted by the woman who reared it. Judy Goodman has done more than anyone to restore this ‘dark-fleshed and kingly’ bird, as the late Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra described it, to the tables of discerning diners.

“They’re simply the best geese in England,” says the celebrated chef Shaun Hill. Every December, he drives the 40 minutes or so from Ludlow to pick up his order on behalf of the extended family lucky enough to occupy his Merchant House Restaurant on Christmas Day.

“Our geese were in Harrod’s for Michaelmas and we’ll be in Harvey Nicks for Christmas,” booms Judy who is bustling around her Aga like . . . well, like Mother Goose. Despite being over 60 with a dodgy knee, she exudes the energy of a successful entrepreneur and has a voice more than capable of reaching the back row at her many public cooking demonstrations.

“I’ll carve,” she tells husband Geoff at a volume that brooks no argument, and he confines himself to opening a bottle of Le Vieille Ferme Cote de Ventoux (1999). This afternoon, he will expend enough energy on some of the 750 acres he farms to work off the combined calories of what’s laid before us.

Apart from generous slices of breast and thigh, there are potatoes and parsnips roasted in goose fat, broccoli, red cabbage, stuffing full of apple soaked in rum, giblet gravy and a gooseberry sauce which cuts through the richness of this dense and slightly gamey meat.

“Before cooking, you should always prick the fat glands under the wings and on the back, by the parson’s nose,” Judy recommends. She stuffs her goose with a chopped apple and the green tops of three leeks, cut into two-inch slices.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Goodman’s Geese as a business. But it was in 1982 that Judy started breeding a few of these handsome birds on her lawn. “My in-laws had always had a goose at Christmas,” she recalls, “but they were finding them increasingly hard to find. So we bought some nine-day-old goslings from a hatchery near Blackpool. It was purely a hobby.”

The introduction of milk quotas two years later led Judy to seek a way of supplementing a drastic reduction in farm income. So it came to pass that her goose business was hatched. It quickly took flight on a wind of change. Growing numbers of consumers were seeking alternatives to the bland fodder offered by supermarkets.

“There’s no doubt that we grew with the better-food-in-our-country movement of the 80s,” she reflects. By the end of the decade, she was were featured on Delia’s Christmas cookery programme, by which time the farm was home to 1,800 geese. This winter, Judy will turn over 3,500, plus an almost equivalent number of dark-feathered ‘bronze’ turkeys, properly hung and very different from the “’vast feathered swindle’ with the texture of ‘wet sawdust’ which Casandra railed against in the ’60s.

Orders for Goodman’s geese and turkeys are coming in thick and fast. Judy offers an overnight courier service and prices are cheaper in October than they will be in December. “Some people buy early and put it in the freezer for Christmas,” she says, helping me to another slice of this sublimely succulent and still-warm breast.

“I think goose is just as nice cold,” Geoff ventures. “The flavor comes out even more.” If you want to test that theory, Judy recommends removing one side of the breast, wholesale, and wrapping the slab of meat in foil. “Don’t slice it up or it’ll go dry,” she advises.

So does she enjoy a cold goose sandwich on Christmas night? “No. I love goose and I have faith in my product. But all I want by that time are a few prawns and a bit of cold salmon.”

Chris Arnot is a British free-lance journalist

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