Hugh & Fiona Osborne love cooking for friends and family, especially when Christmas dinner is on the menu!
Almost nothing captures the amazing diversity of skills that a Smallholder needs quite so well, as putting a self-sufficient meal on the table. Trying to make these meals has changed the way we feel about food and brought us real joy and some real insights as to how complicated a fully self-sufficient meal really is!
I imagine that most of us can identify with those Christmas meals where the poor harried cook labours in a hot and steamy kitchen, getting up at ‘sparrow’s cough’ to preheat the oven, frantically trying to balance an unfeasibly large number of pans on a suddenly tiny stove whilst cramming all manner of trays and dishes into an oven that needs at least three more shelves.
It’s bad enough trying to do all this with ingredients sourced at great expense from supermarkets, butchers and greengrocers, so surely producing it all ourselves makes it a nightmare? Well, no, but you have to understand that here, the meal will be ready when it’s ready; you see it has literally taken all year to produce.
THE CHRISTMAS (DINNER) STORY BEGINS
Like a lot of people, our first ‘baby steps’ into growing our own food was vegetables. For us this was a revelation, particularly the humble parsnip! A home-grown parsnip that is plump and freshly harvested roasted with a drizzle of honey from our own hives was completely unlike the sad, old specimens bought from a supermarket. It was sweet rather than starchy and had a fantastic flavour. Our eyes were opened to the fact that many foods available to us commercially are produced around cost, ease of transportation and reliable cropping rather than flavour and interest.
As smallholders we could produce foods that were delicious, unusual, or labour intensive that simply cannot be found in the shops. We decided to produce more of the foods we love and at least once a year, to attempt a meal that was entirely produced by us. One interesting side effect of striving to produce a whole meal is that it really brings the mantra of ‘eat local’ into sharp relief. That’s easy enough with the core vegetables. We grow the carrots, potatoes and parsnips that we need. We even grow the Brussel Sprouts that Fiona demands (Hugh detests them at a visceral level).
This leads on to the meat. As regular readers will know, we breed Buff Orpington chickens. Half of all the chicks hatched by our hens are cockerels. Given that we follow a natural breeding cycle with hens going broody in April and May, we have a lot of mature cockerels in late Autumn. We do sell a few to other breeders but most we process ourselves as table birds. The first time we did this was another eye opener! Slow grown traditional breed chickens taste totally different than fast grown broiler birds. Of course, they develop far more leg muscle and have a very different physical conformation. When we posted a photo of a roast chicken online, a veterinarian replied, “nice to see a home raised bird”.
We hadn’t mentioned that it was one of ours, but she explained that the leg development was completely different. Some of our older farmer neighbours swear that cockerels taste better although we aren’t certain about that. When we cull older birds there is even a small layer of yellow fat which I have never seen in a commercial bird, but it must have been common once as the Jewish word “Schmaltz” is literally chicken fat! Our local meat therefore is always one of our own cockerels, raised and processed right here, by us.
This article extract was taken from the December 2023 edition of The Country Smallholder. To read more about Hugh and Fiona’s home grown Christmas dinner, you can buy the issue here.
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