Western Europe: Roast Goose for Christmas

Roast goose: perfect for Christmas

There's a tendency to think of the turkey as having been the traditional Christmas dinner for ages. But only a couple of centuries ago, turkeys would have been seen in Europe as pricey fad food -- a waste of time when there were better, cheaper and more traditional alternatives available: like goose.

People have been eating goose all over Europe for thousands of years. The association of geese with the feasts of deep winter and the Solstice's death-and-rebirth theme may go back as far as ancient Egypt, where the goose was the symbol of the creator-god Amen -- the universe itself was sometimes said to have been hatched from a "cosmic egg" produced by this deity. But leaving aside any possible religious connotations, geese were the perfect fowl for small farmers down through the centuries to raise (and later, big farmers too). They were smart, economical to keep -- since they live by grazing and don't need expensive grain -- and best of all, geese are tough, able to withstand disease and bad weather. By contrast, the turkey, which Spanish and West African traders started bringing to Europe from Mexico in the 1600's, needed a lot of coddling in Europe because it had little resistance to the avian disease histamonosis or "black head", a protozoan-borne liver disease of barnyard fowl. So disease-prone and labor-intensive a bird was expensive to raise; since that extra cost was naturally passed along to the customer, turkeys were slow to spread through western Europe.

Meanwhile as populations grew, and demand for geese along with them, prices dropped and geese became cheaper and easier than ever for even city people to enjoy at Christmas. For the last few centuries, as December approached, hundreds of thousands of geese -- sometimes wearing foot protection to help them cope with the hard roads -- would be herded from upcountry farms to cities like London in gigantic flocks, then dispersed to local keepers and breeders for their final fattening. People in city suburbs even raised geese in their back yards: the loss of a city-bred goose like this is what gets Sherlock Holmes involved in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." It would be nearly another half-century before the price of turkeys would drop low enough for them to start competing with geese. Until then they were seen as a pricey fad food only suitable for gourmands and rich people. This is why, in A Christmas Carol, only when the wealthy Scrooge pays for dinner is there any chance the Cratchit family will have a turkey for Christmas. Their own original choice is the traditional and affordable goose.*

These days the popularity of goose is on the rise again as people start to get tired of the tasteless meat of turkeys that have been bred for sheer size, or are simply looking for something that hasn't been intensively reared and is "greener". Geese are perfect in this regard, since there's no such thing as an intensively-reared goose. They're free range by definition, spending the majority of their lives grazing on grass in the open fields. The so-called "green goose", which comes into season around the Christian feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, or Michaelmas (September 29), is reared exclusively on grass and greenery, and is fairly lean. The later "harvest" goose, also called the Martinmas goose for its finishing time around Saint Martin's feast (November 11th), spends its remaining time being fattened on grain, usually wheat or barley, and it's fatter and meatier as a result. This is the classic Christmas goose.**

In past years North Americans have sometimes been scared off the concept of making roast goose for Christmas because of rumors that it's a greasy bird, or that it won't be as good for holiday eating because it doesn't have as much meat on it as a turkey. It's true that the meat-to-carcass ratio on a goose is lower than it is on a turkey. But goose meat is much richer than turkey meat, and also much more flavorful: not a gamy flavor, but a substantial one. Once you've tasted a well-roasted goose, the contrast between its rich dark flavor and the bland flavor of turkey will surprise you. Also, the extra fat in the goose's skin makes it difficult to dry out a goose while roasting it. (And the fat you pour off at intervals during the roasting process can be stored in the fridge or freezer for months, and makes the best roast potatoes on Earth.) Additionally, pound for pound, goose is economical compared to turkey. Even a small goose of eight pounds (like the one in the photo above) can satisfy four people.


Roast goose with dumplings
(Image courtesy of KissMonika at Flickr)

Sales of goose for Christmas in Britain and Ireland have been experiencing an upswing: in some places sales are up 100% or more. But elsewhere in Europe the strong holiday goose tradition has never waned despite the presence of the turkey. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria in particular, restaurants in every major city will offer succulent, crisp-skinned roast goose to their patrons at Michaelmas, Martinmas, and around Christmas time. The normal side dishes in the German-speaking countries are potato dumplings and red cabbage, and the goose's stuffing normally contains potato as well. In England and Ireland, the stuffings often feature tart fruits like quince, apple or cranberry, as well as savory sausage meats and bacon.

Our treatment here features a potato, apple and bacon stuffing seasoned with cranberry and lemon -- tart flavors that balance the rich dark quality of the goose meat.

How to roast, stuff and serve a goose

First find your goose. Depending on where you are, this may mean ordering it from a local butcher or supplier, or just picking a bird up from your supermarket's freezer case (though seasonally you may be able to pick one up fresh). However, local resources vary so widely that you should start looking into where you'll get your goose at least a couple of weeks ahead. In some areas, a month might be better.

There may also be some variation in what state the goose is in when it arrives and what extra parts accompany it. Most butchers and suppliers will include the liver and giblets of the goose; others will add the neck of the goose as well. If you can get more than one goose liver -- as we were able to, because others who had ordered geese from our butcher didn't want theirs --- do so: they make terrific, fiendishly rich goose liver paté. If you don't want to make paté, the liver can be quickly seared in a frying pan, allowed to cool, and chopped up to add to your preferred stuffing (you can add it to the recipe we give below). The giblets, and the neck if you get it, should be simmered on low heat for several hours with a little salt, pepper and sage to make a rich basic stock . This you can use after roasting to deglaze the roasting pan and make your goose's gravy.

As regards how big a goose you need: allow 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of uncooked-goose weight per person. A goose for four people, for example, should weigh at least eight pounds -- more if you want significant leftovers.

Preparing the goose

To get the goose ready for roasting, there are a few things you need to do.

Cut out the wishbone: This will make the breast meat easier to carve, and if there's enough neck skin left on the goose, it will also give you more room to stuff the neck cavity. With the breast side up, pull back the skin around the neck to reveal the bone. With a small sharp knife, cut around those parts of the wishbone that you can see on both sides. You don't have to cut too deeply: just enough so that you can slip a finger under the bone and pull it out.

Pierce the skin: Because geese live outdoors all year and are physically active in all weathers, they build up a far thicker layer of fat under their skins than intensively raised chickens or turkeys ever do. This fat needs an escape route during the roasting process if the skin of the goose is to achieve the crispness that makes roast goose famous.

To make sure the fat can get out during roasting, you must prick the goose all over with something sharp -- a small knife, or the tines of a sharp fork. The idea is to pierce the skin without piercing the flesh underneath, so that the meat's moisture won't have a chance to escape at the same time the fat does. When doing the piercing, don't omit the legs: the skin there won't get crisp if you forget them. Also, make sure that the sides of the goose underneath the legs and wings get their share of the piercing.

Stuff and truss the goose: Because you'll be turning the goose a number of times during the roasting process, you'll want to make sure that the legs and wings aren't going to flap around, and that the stuffing is going to stay in place. First, therefore, run a skewer between the bones of the ends of the wings and push a length of (non-plastic) twine through the holes, knotting them together as tightly as possible.

When this is done, season the inside of the body cavity of the goose with salt and pepper: then fill with your preferred stuffing. As with a turkey or chicken, don't pack down the stuffing or overfill the body cavity. When stuffed, sew the body cavity closed with more twine. The simplest way is to pierce the skin on both sides with a skewer and push the twine through, knotting each pair of skewer-holes together with the twine. If you like, and if the legs seem at all loose, tie them together with twine behind the body as well.

Roasting the goose: Preheat the oven to 425° F / 220° C (a little lower if you have a fan oven). Rub the skin of the goose with a little vegetable oil or olive oil: season with salt and pepper. Prepare a roasting pan, lining it with foil if you like: if possible, put a roasting rack in the pan to hold the goose more securely. Place the goose on its side in the pan or on the roasting rack. Pour a few tablespoons of water into the roasting pan to prevent the goose fat from scorching.

When the oven is heated, put in the goose and roast it for 30 minutes at 425° F / 220° C.

When the thirty minutes are over, take the goose out and pour the fat that has accumulated in the pan into a heatproof container (Pyrex or similar). You are likely to get an amazing amount of fat out of the goose at this point, so be prepared! (The goose we roasted this year gave up 600ml of fat -- more than a pint -- at this stage, and continued to release it more slowly all through the roasting time.) Once you've poured the fat off, turn the goose on its other side and return it to the oven, lowering the oven temperature to 350° F / 175° C. Your goose will need to roast for at least 2-3 hours further. Calculate the remaining total roasting time this way:

You would have weighed the goose when you started. Take this amount in pounds and multiply it by minutes per pound: 18-20 minutes per pound if the goose is unstuffed, or 22-24 minutes per pound stuffed (use the longer times if your goose weighs more than 12 pounds). The answer you get will be your complete cooking time in minutes: subtract the 30 minutes for which you've already cooked your goose, and you'll get the number of minutes of roasting time remaining.

During this whole period, baste the goose as often as possible -- once every fifteen minutes, if you can: but at least once every half hour. Please note that the goose's breast will cook more quickly than the rest of the bird, so protecting it with foil to keep it from overcooking and drying out is a good idea. (WSe kept the goose you'll see below "tented" with foil until the last hour half hour of roasting, with excellent results: the breast meat was perfectly tender after a three and a half hour roasting time).)You may also want to cover the ends of the goose's legs after about the first hour and a half to keep them from charring.

Half an hour after turning the goose on its second side, turn it again so that it's breast side down (again pouring off the accumulated fat): then, half an hour after that, pour off any remaining fat and turn the goose breast-side up to finish roasting. If you have a larger goose that requires more cooking time, keep giving it half-turns every half hour and pouring off fat as necessary.

When the goose is done, remove it from the roasting pan and set it aside on the carving board or platter to rest. It needs at least twenty to twenty-five minutes to rest before you start carving it.

 

Carving the goose:

The goose's body is shaped slightly differently from that of a turkey or chicken, so they don't carve in quite the same way. Here's how to do it:

  • Cut away the string you used to truss the limbs of the goose and discard it.
  • Cut open the sewn-up vent of the goose and remove all the stuffing to a bowl for serving.
  • With a heavy-bladed knife, cut straight down through the goose's shoulder joints, all the way through. This frees the wings.
  • Cut all the way around each of the legs and straight through the joint where it meets the body. Split the thighs away from the drumsticks.
  • With a long carving knife oriented the long way along the goose's body, slice the breast meat off the breast.

Serve hot with your preferred side dishes. Use the goose fat you've poured off to roast potatoes or in other dishes (especially French ones): it will keep, refrigerated in a closed jar, for months and months. The carcass will make terrific stock. Finally, check out the stuffing recipe below.

 

Potato, Apple and Cranberry Stuffing for Goose

One of the best stuffings for goose that we know of. The tart apples and cranberries perfectly offset the richness of the goose meat.

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium potatoes or 5 small ones
  • 2 large tart cooking apples (Bramley or similar)
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 slices smoked bacon
  • 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sage or 1 teaspoon fresh sage
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 tablespoon butter or lard

Peel the potatoes and chop into approximately 1/2 inch cubes. Parboil in salted water for 5 minutes: drain and set aside. Peel, core and coarsely chop the apples; peel and chop the onion. Grate the zest off the lemon.

Put the butter into a frying pan; when it sizzles, add the bacon slices and fry them until crisp and brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel: chop finely.

Add the onion to the frying pan: saut&eacutge; until the onions soften. Add the parboiled potatoes and sauté until they brown very slightly. Remove from heat.

Wash the cranberries and chop them coarsely. Toss them in a large bowl with the potato and onion mixture. Add the chopped bacon, herbs, and other seasonings: toss again. Add the apples and mix together thoroughly.

Stuff the goose with all the mixture that will fit in comfortably: put the rest in a pie plate or cake tin to be cooked separately. (Moisten the pan-cooked stuffing with a little stock before baking it at about 350° F for about twenty minutes.)

After your goose is cooked, always remove all the stuffing from the carcass immediately after cooking. Refrigerate when it cools.

*It may even have been one they raised themselves in their own back yard: this would possibly explain why Dickens describes it as a little on the small side, as the Cratchits were chronically short on money and wouldn't have been able to fatten it up as effectively as a London goose-breeder could have.

**Another name for this goose is the "stubble goose", since the flocks were often turned out into grain fields that had been reaped so that they could pick up any missed grains of wheat or barley.