Paul Kelly’s life has been dominated by turkeys. He has been breeding them since he was six, plucking since he was seven, eats turkey at least three times a week and can bang on for hours about the glorious ‘mouth feel’ of his well-hung birds and the joy of dark leg meat (‘Ooh, all that lovely flavour!’).
On top of that, he holds two turkey-related Guinness World Records — for the fastest-carved bird (three minutes and 19 seconds) and, since Gordon Ramsay challenged him to a ‘pluck-off’ back in 2008, has held the title of ‘fastest plucker over three birds’ — at just 11 minutes 30 seconds — much to Ramsay’s fury.
The glory of ‘fastest plucker over a single bird’ however, is held by the late Vincent Pilkington who died last month, aged 72. He beat Paul several times and his astonishing record is one minute, 30 seconds.
Jane Fryer is pictured above with Paul Kelly as she visits his Essex turkey farm. Paul is obsessed with dry hanging (and would like it to be longer) to improve the flavour and ‘mouth feel’ — the softness of the meat
‘Oh my God, did he take it seriously! But he was goddam quick, I have to admit,’ says Paul, 57, who is giving me a masterclass in plucking on his Essex farm. We start with some gentle stretches.
In the run-up to the plucking season, Paul will ‘limber up’ his thumbs and forefingers to prevent cramps, sores and injuries.
In front of us, suspended by their gnarly feet, are a pair of freshly-killed hens (as mature female turkeys are known). They are still so warm to the touch that I check for a heartbeat.
‘You start with the wings because the warmer they are, the easier they are to pluck,’ says Paul, first stretching them out to display their surprisingly magnificent plumage before grasping the top of a wing with one hand and ‘unzipping’ — or ripping off — the distinctive long feathers of one of his famous KellyBronze free-range birds, with one brisk tug.
Britons normally eat around ten million turkeys over the festive season — of which Paul rears about 32,000. And this year, according to poultry breeders and butchers across the country, the demand for turkeys is off the scale.
‘We’ve already hit last year’s total orders and sold out of our four-kilo birds,’ he says.
It makes sense when you factor in the 4.8 million Brits who normally flee abroad for Christmas but this year will be forced to celebrate at home because of Covid travel restrictions.
For while their fate is unavoidable, his flocks — some raised on his land, others by accredited farmers — have a nicer life than most, as well as a price (about £14 per kilo, as opposed to £5) and a celebrity following to match
Add to them those who would normally enjoy lunch on the big day in a pub or restaurant but who may be less keen to do so this year. ‘We need more birds — a lot more,’ says Paul. ‘But we can’t magic up a million.’
By the end of last week every one of Paul’s birds for Christmas 2020 had been either electrically stunned or gassed, bled out, hand-plucked by an 82-strong team of professional pluckers and then dry-hung in a giant fridge for 14 days to mature.
‘Maybe there will be big punch-ups in Tesco!’ he jokes.
Not that Paul’s birds will be gracing many supermarket shelves. They are mainly available online or from independent butchers.
For while their fate is unavoidable, his flocks — some raised on his land, others by accredited farmers — have a nicer life than most, as well as a price (about £14 per kilo, as opposed to £5) and a celebrity following to match.
Famous fans include Ramsay, Paul’s pal Jamie Oliver and Michel Roux, who rates the meat so highly he was tempted to put turkey tartare on one of his menus.
The birds live longer — six months, as opposed to 12 weeks — than bog-standard supermarket turkeys, which endure their short lives packed into cramped barns on a diet that encourages their breasts to grow so large their legs often struggle to support their weight.
The KellyBronzes spend their days in huge outdoor enclosures —eating, pecking, rolling in the dust and popping in and out of their cosy barn for a bit more seed or a lie down.
They are friendly, curious — several peck gently at my clothes and give me very beady looks when I venture into their field — and are surprisingly beautiful with a burnished plumage.
But back to the still-warm birds in front of us and the ‘unzipping’, which I cannot seem to master. I pull and pull and apologise more than once to my poor, dead hen —but not one feather budges.
Even though the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge famously bought a prize turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (written in 1843), it was goose rather than turkey that formed the traditional centrepiece of the British festive lunch.
In the 1950s, however, intensive farming techniques were developed and, as geese were less suited to it than poor old turkeys, so it was that the latter was pushed aggressively by supermarkets.
Paul tells me that for the Kelly family, it started in the early 1970s, when his dad Derek — a former employee of Bernard Matthews, Britain’s best-known poultry farmer and ‘an incredible man, a dynamo, the man who put turkey on the map!’ — branched out on his own with 600 birds. It was Derek who saw a gap for the bronze — a proper old-fashioned turkey.
Paul joined the family business in 1980 and while it is thriving today — there is also a hatchery business which sells 1.2 million turkey chicks to farmers around the country — it hasn’t all been plain sailing as independent butchers lost out to supermarkets.
‘In 1963 there were 63,000 butchers. Now, there are just 5,000,’ says Paul — and pluckers became as rare as, well, hen’s teeth.
Britons normally eat around ten million turkeys over the festive season — of which Paul rears about 32,000. And this year, according to poultry breeders and butchers across the country, the demand for turkeys is off the scale [File photo]
‘When I was a boy, plucking was a huge deal — the whole village joined in and made a bit of Christmas cash. I used to make a fortune,’ he adds.
‘Suddenly, I couldn’t find anyone. It was holding back the business.’
Today all his regular pluckers come from Poland and this year were housed in self-contained bubbles to avoid the delays of quarantine.
He provides accommodation and food, and the workers hand-pluck for ten hours a day at a rate of just under four birds an hour.
(By contrast, some of the bigger, automated plants can process 2,500 birds an hour in their mechanical pluckers.)
Many have other full-time jobs but take a fortnight’s holiday to pluck, returning each year.
It requires a high degree of skill to remove the dark feathers quickly by hand, while protecting the delicate breast fat that tears so easily.
Then Paul’s precious birds are dipped in hot wax which, ‘just like a bikini wax’, is peeled off for that ‘polished look’ without damaging the skin.
They are hung by their feet from hooks in their tens of thousands in a giant refrigerated warehouse for a fortnight.
Paul is obsessed with dry hanging (and would like it to be longer) to improve the flavour and ‘mouth feel’ — the softness of the meat.
The process causes an enzyme change in the birds that results in the breaking down of collagen that connects tissues to the muscles — in the same way it does in beef.
‘The meat will continue to improve for seven weeks in the fridge,’ he says. ‘Though the fat will start to go rancid after five weeks.’
As for my own plucking experience, once I’ve wrestled with the wings, I find the process surprisingly satisfying — but oh so slow. When I finally finish removing the soft, downy breast feathers, my bird is as cold as a stone and my thumbs and forefingers are aching.
‘You can take the birds home and hang them in your garden if you like,’ says Paul. ‘A couple of weeks in ambient temperature and they’ll be perfect.’
Which is highly tempting, of course. His turkeys are the best and cost a small fortune.
And then I imagine having to gut them, slice the feet off, rip the tendons out and chop their head off — so I decide to order one online, ready-prepped by the experts and delivered in a smart, black box, instead.