In most homes for only one day each year does the turkey gets its time to shine – and, if cooked correctly, it shines quite literally as the glazed centerpiece of our Christmas feasts.
Though in a growing number of farms across Ireland our favourite festive fowl are the centre of attention all year round – well, at least from April when a new batch of bobbing baby goslings arrive.
One of those farms is Maperath Farm, just outside Kells, Co.Meath, where farmer Eoin Sharkey gives his turkeys – and geese too – a chance to live their lives in greener pastures; slow rearing them on locally sourced natural feeds, allowing them to forage freely, and to feast on complimentary extras like apples and hops, the byproduct of a local brewery.
Eoin shares the details of the traditional handling and sustainable farming techniques he believes in that culminate to make a Maperath Farm bird the best choice for the most special dinner of the year, and his plans to supply grass reared rabbit to the Irish market.
How did you become involved in farming?
I was originally a carpenter by trade, and during the recession and I had to look at our small farm at home for inspiration. I always loved farming and would have bred horses at home and reared our own pigs and lambs for our own table. My mother has always been an inspiration also being from a poultry farm in Leitrim, it was from her originally that we made a conscious decision to farm traditionally and ethically, our mantra is “old school is new school.”
Who is involved in the business?
It is mostly a one man show with a lot of help and assistance around the manic time that is Christmas. I’m lucky to have an inspirational wife Olivia (Duff) who is one of Failte Ireland’s Food Champions. She also won the RAI Leinster Local Food Hero Award last year so we share a lot of the same ethos and she helps with marketing etc. I also have great family support around the festive period.
What variety of animals do you have on the farm?
As I operate Agri Aware’s ‘Mobile Farm’, which is an educational farm visiting schools, events and festivals throughout the country, we have a menagerie of animals on the farm, including a Dexter cow and calf, ducks and chickens! Turkeys and geese are the main event for the Christmas market, but we also supply lamb in a box which is custom butchered direct from the farm. We are also presently carrying out a pilot project on supplying grass reared rabbit to the Irish market, as all rabbit served presently is mostly French.
• What does Maperath Farm do differently in the rearing of its birds?
We get our birds up to two months before commercial producers.
Our birds are outside from dawn until dusk from six weeks old until the end when they leave us a birds that have had a happy free life, eating as much natural feed as they want and whenever they want it.
We don’t have rigid feeding times or quantities, we stay as close to the foraging nature of the bird as possible and to this end we plant a foraging crop for them including kale, brassicas, and sunflowers for them to forage away throughout the day. We try our best to farm ‘as nature intended.’
What do you feed your birds?
The main source of feed is barley and wheat, which we have ground freshly by our neighbours the Moorheads (tillage farmers). The birds also have a foraging crop, fallen apples, and the used hops from the local BRU brewery which finishes them really well.
How does your approach differ to factory farming?
We passionately believe in the quality of life of the bird, they are fully free and live outdoors, apart from night-time when we bring them in to the barn to keep them safe from foxes.
They enjoy about three times the recommended square footage per bird for free range status.
They are never under any pressure for space as in a commercial atmosphere, where a bird will never see the light of day and will be reared in a forced environment in about half the time on commercial feeds.
Do you think your approach affects the taste of the bird?
Totally, you can first of all see it in the colour and texture of the meat. The meat is darker and a lot more succulent, the flavour lasts in your mouth, and the bird cooks out differently to a commercial bird when roasted with great moisture.
It also makes wonderful stock for soup. We offer all our birds for sale with their giblets, and we encourage our customers to use every morsel of the bird whether it is for soup or stock.
You sell directly to the customer, why did you chose this route to market over selling to supermarkets or butchers?
As our business is seasonal, we are in the position that we can specialise in selling direct to the customer. The customer loves collecting their bird from either the farm or the market at Christmas time, and they make it part of their ritual with kids or family. ‘Collecting the turkey’ signifies the real start of Christmas for them.
We also supply some restaurants directly, and we have built up a relationship with chefs who are committed to buying local and featuring it on their menu. The feedback we are receiving has been so positive, the customer wants to know where their food is coming from and they buy into the story and it commands a premium.
Have you noticed people are willing to pay extra for their Christmas turkey?
Yes, but they should only pay more if it is justified. We believe if you educate your customer why they are being charged more and bring them into the story of their food then they will pay more for quality. This relies on the producer being up front and honest with the customer and building a rapport with them, again very much like how Ireland was before the supermarket.
We also educate the encourage our customers about making the most of their beautiful bird, using the giblets for soup and the carcass for lovely heart warming stock; in this way the bird offers value.
We focus on forgotten skills and cooking traditions as part of Christmas, we are delighted to talk to our customers through making the most of their bird. For this reason we will never offer the convenient ‘crown of turkey’, its all about respecting your food and making the most of the bird with no waste!
We charge more for our birds to justify our method of rearing, our natural feeds and the longer time that they are with us in a natural environment compared to commercial birds.
Has there been an increase in competition from supermarkets in recent years as they expand their offering?
Yes indeed, there have been some very clever marketing campaigns out there with huge spend behind them. However, we feel like we have carved out our own niche by having events on the farm like ‘Happy Bird Workshops’, bringing the customer into our story, and we host a family open day the first Sunday of December when we allow children out to feed the turkeys in the paddock and we have a display of farm animals and pony rides on the day. It’s all part of the experience of buying a ‘Maperath Farm’ bird.
We feel strongly that children in particular should know the story of their food and the journey it takes to the table, and we are proud of our story. We also package the birds for Christmas in a box with a recipe card and a ‘Note From Your Turkey’ – which asks the cook to take as much care in cooking as has been taken in rearing the bird!
Christmas is obviously your busiest time of the year, when do you begin preparing for the festive season?
Christmas really begins when the baby goslings arrive in April. We just have a few months off in the New Year, and it’s busy with lambs arriving too so never much rest, but we are very happy that our kids are growing up in this environment knowing the story of their food.
What range of turkeys do you offer?
We only offer bronze turkeys for Christmas, as it is actually the most traditional bird and we love the flavour and quality it delivers – white birds were the result of commercialism in the 1970’s. We have four different breeds of turkey which finish at different weights for the Christmas table.
We will produce over 500 turkeys and 200 geese for Christmas this year.
• Have you found that goose has become a more popular choice at Christmas time?
Yes, there is a definite throw back to goose as a traditional choice but also for a change. We love goose! It is so delicious but the secret is in the cooking. We render all of our goose fat also and make jars of delicious goose fat for Christmas – there’s nothing like it for the perfect roast potato.
What is your favourite way to prepare your Turkey at Christmas time?
We love to wrap the legs of the turkey in lard or streaky bacon, stuff the bird traditionally in a fragrant fresh herb stuffing and cook slowly and rest well when cooked. We are always trying new ways and with the addition of a wood-fired oven and a smoker on the farm this year, there is surely going to be a bird cooked in that this year!
What products or services do you focus for the rest of the year?
We are excited about introducing high quality grass reared rabbit in the coming year. There is an upward trend for rabbit on menus and it is so delicious but difficult to source in Ireland presently. We have a number of chefs showing great interest so far.
We are also launching a new food tourism experience on the farm next year called ‘Ireland’s Ancient Eats’. It will be an immersive fun experience telling Ireland’s food story through time. We will focus on overseas visitors and also educational tours. Watch this space!
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.