Before being overtaken by turkey, goose was the preferred choice for the Christmas lunch table in England and more recently there are signs of it making a bit of a comeback. Goose meat is richer and darker than turkey. It has a higher fat content, but a lot of the fat melts away during cooking leaving deliciously tasty and succulent meat.
Although not cheap, goose makes a wonderful treat for any special meal. In addition the goose fat collected during cooking makes the best roast potatoes and is almost worth the entrance price alone. Goose has a wonderfully rich, buttery flavour, bordering on the beefy, thanks to its grass diet. It’s certainly a fatty bird, but don’t let that put you off – the flavour is worth it.
The common domesticated goose is a descendant of the greylag goose (Anser anser) still found in the wild in Ireland, western Scotland and some other parts of Europe The most popular strain of commercial goose is the Legarth, a white-feathered bird with a high meat-to-bone ratio. This breed is very well-suited to free-range grazing. The Embden is another white variety that shares similar characteristics. Geese, by their very nature, are all free-range, but some will, of course, be better reared than others.
Free range Legarth geese
Geese were bred in ancient Egypt and goose liver was loved by the Romans. Goose has always been important in French cuisine where it plays a key part in traditional dishes such as cassoulet, confit d’oie and foie gras.
In Victorian times, the homes of the poor often had open fireplaces for heat and cooking but not with ovens. So many families, like the Cratchits in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, took their Christmas goose or turkey to the baker’s shop.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first edition 1843
Bakers were forbidden to open on Sundays and holidays but would open their shops on these days to the poor and bake their dinners for a small fee. Dickens mentions Master Peter Cratchit and the two younger Cratchits going to fetch their Christmas goose from the bakers.
Bringing home the Christmas goose
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone, — too nervous to bear witnesses, — to take the pudding up, and bring it in….. from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens first published by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843.
Christmas dinner at the Cratchit's
Fresh geese are available from specialist suppliers and quality butchers. You may need to order in advance, particularly around Christmas. Geese are quite big-boned and so choose a larger bird than you would a chicken (allow at least 750g per person). Having said that, smaller (younger) birds are the most tender, so two small geese are preferable to a single huge one.
Choose plump-looking free-range birds.
Keep refrigerated, giblets removed, for 2 or 3 days.
Scoop out any excess fat from the cavity and put aside for roasting potatoes. Rinse the goose inside and out and pat well dry. Prick the skin to enable the fat to be released during cooking (try not to pierce the flesh) and rub the skin with salt and pepper.
Place breast side up on a rack over a roasting pan. Roast at 220°C for 30 minutes followed by around 2½ to 3½ hours (depending on size) at 180°C. Baste the goose every 20 to 30 minutes and remove the fat that accumulates in the pan or it will smoke furiously (the fat can be stored in the fridge for a few days, or frozen). If parts of the goose seem to be browning too quickly, wrap them in foil.
The goose is cooked when a skewer in the thickest part of the thigh reveals clear juices (the flesh may still be slightly pink). Remove from the oven, cover with foil and rest for 15 minutes or so before carving.
Charlie the Butcher