Heritage Turkey Breeds Make A Comeback

The commercial turkey your grandmother will likely be serving this Holiday season is so different from the wild turkey it descended from they’re almost different animals. This, and the fact commercial birds can be almost flavourless, has some chefs and consumers looking for alternatives.

The modern turkey is the result of 200+ years of genetic engineering that is aimed at speeding maturation and providing more of the white breast meat consumers have come to love. In fact, the modern turkey’s breasts are so big the bird often has trouble standing, walking and breeding naturally.

Forgetting the truly horrible conditions that exist on many large industrial poultry farms, modern turkeys just don’t taste that good. Shipped to the slaughterhouse when they’re only 12 weeks old, there isn’t a lot of time for flavour to develop. A diet almost exclusively of fortified corn doesn’t help.

You could opt for duck or goose, but if you want to go with the traditional bird for the holidays consider a heritage turkey instead. Heritage turkeys are making something of a comeback from their virtual extinction at the end of the 20th century, thanks largely to the Slow Food and locavore movements.

Most breeds of what we call heritage turkeys today were identified in the American Poultry Association's turkey Standard of Perfection back in 1874. These breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland.

The frozen bowling ball granny will be pulling from the freezer and thawing out her turkey funeral will most likely be a Broad-Breasted White, the breed that accounts for 99% of commercial production.

Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. To be considered a heritage variety by the non-profit Livestock Conservancy, a turkey needs to meet a number of criteria.

It has to be able to breed naturally (no artificial insemination), it has to be long-lived (5 to 7 years for ladies, 3 to 5 years for dudes), it has to be able to survive outdoors (that is, it has to be able to walk, flap its wings and do other bird stuff), and it has to have a slow to moderate rate of growth (a heritage breed matures in 28 weeks or longer).

With rich tasting meat that is more moist and flavorful than the mass-produced, large-breasted turkeys of today, Heritage Breeds owe their taste to their diverse diets – which include fresh grass and insects – and extended lifespans.

The bad news if you’re hoping to put heritage turkey on the menu at your restaurant or at home is they aren’t widely available. The good news is that availability is improving each year.

In the U.S., Heritage Foods USA  and Local Harvest are good places to start looking. In Canada, availability is much more regionalized so an online search for local suppliers is your best bet.