It’s not your average tom. The Bronze turkey coming to market in time for the holiday season is the latest must-have for lovers of heirloom foods. Dark and robust, it doesn’t look or taste like a Butterball. And with a price tag of $100 or more—or $17.50 a kilo at one butcher shop—neither does this hard-to-find fowl have much in common with an ordinary, buckshot-riddled wild turkey, which comes free of charge save a hunting licence and ammunition.
It took two years and some risk, but Cumbrae’s butcher-shop owner Stephen Alexander in Toronto and Ontario farmers Emily and Scott Nieuwland felt certain these specialty birds could fly—off the shelf. They decided on the Bronze, a caramel-fleshed heritage breed, that, unlike its commercial brethren, mates naturally. Nieuwland recalls he first located eggs at a farm “someplace near Texas,” but wanted something closer to home. Last year, he found Bronze poults, or baby birds, on an Albertan farm. “They flew red-eye on WestJet,” he recalls of the summer shipment. Nieuwland doesn’t want to name his source: “It took a long time to find him and he’s got a short supply,” he says.
At about 3.5 kg to 8 kg, Alexander says of the Bronze, “It’s closest in my mind to a game bird. Comparing the white [industry standard] turkey to the heritage one is like comparing a chicken to a pheasant.”
Still a rarity in Canada, these alt-turkeys are all the rage for seasonal shoppers at high-end stores such as Dean & DeLuca in New York. The fetish runs so high that selecting a turkey through an American website retailer requires clicking on the photo of the live bird of choice—and it’s so successful an approach that in the days leading up to American Thanksgiving, the images are stamped: Out Of Stock. Humorist and foodie Nora Ephron wrote in 2005 that she was embarrassed to find herself out of the loop and without the de rigueur centrepiece for her Thanksgiving table. That was a few years after the launch of the American Heritage Turkey Project, which, in just seven years, has grown from a marginal operation selling about 600 birds to over 10,000 annually. In fact, they’re so hot, there are already reports of fraud south of the border: cross-breeding of commercial lines with heritage stock.
Rare Breeds Canada, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional and often endangered livestock and poultry, lists about 50 producers raising heritage turkeys in Canada. “Very, very few of them are commercial. Maybe five,” says turkey coordinator Margaret Thomson. On Vancouver Island, Stonecroft Farm raises flocks of about 700 of these birds, she estimates. The Nieuwlands have raised two flocks of about 500 each. (By comparison, Canadian turkey farms average 54,000 birds per farm.)
But in a world where convenience reigns so supreme that supermarket turkeys come in freezer-to-oven versions that are pre-stuffed—just heat and serve!—the heritage comes with a set of challenges beyond price. Splendido chef David Lee, cooking at home, tried his first Bronze turkey this Thanksgiving. “It was better than the regular turkey. It was more plump, more full-bodied,” he says, adding a note of caution: “But there is more room to fail.” He found it cooked quickly and needed a low oven temperature “so that all the juices were sealed in.”
Cumbrae’s Alexander agrees that education is key. “We had to really tell people that this was a different kind of bird. It would cook differently, eat differently.” The bronze feathers, which are dark at the root, leave little pin marks on the skin. “I was blown away by these little black ink marks,” he says. “That’s how a turkey should look.” But he got a lot of calls. “People complained, ‘There are black marks on the turkey,’ and we needed to let them know that it’s normal.”
In spite of hurdles, Nieuwland is confident the market will grow. With his flocks sold out this fall, he plans to expand for next. Ontario chef Stephen Treadwell has tasted the Bronze. “It’s totally opposite of the water-chilled turkey,” he says, adding that the price is higher but since these birds “don’t shrink as much” the weight, after cooking, is higher. Although he wouldn’t normally put turkey on the menu at his Port Dalhousie, Ont., restaurant, called Treadwell, he “would love to get some of these” from Cumbrae. But there aren’t enough to go around. If Nieuwland’s plans for expansion work out, Treadwell might get his wish next year.