Jim Schiltz doesn’t understand why people don’t eat goose more often—-say, 20 to 30 times a year, the way his family does—instead of only at Christmas. Of course, Schiltz raises geese in South Dakota, so you’ll forgive him for being a bit biased. As his wife Marcia says, “Nobody in our family likes turkey. We prefer dark meat.” That dark meat (including the breast) is more full-bodied and more interestingly flavored than turkey meat, which means more wine-matching possibilities for Christmas dinner.
“Goose is dark and delicious, with a nice richness,” says Katy Sparks. “It’s different from duck, a little gamier.” At Quilty’s, her former restaurant in New York, Sparks wrapped the legs and breast of goose in bacon (after removing the bird’s skin), braised them with sage, rosemary and cider, and served them with root vegetables and chestnuts. For the holidays, Adrian Hoffman, at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, will make ravioli stuffed with goose confit, served on truffled savoy cabbage and goose “coq au vin” with goose legs. For parties of four, he’ll serve a roasted goose with roasted winter fruits such as Rome apples and Bosc pears.
Many associate Christmas goose with Victorian England. In 19th century England, geese were served at an older age than those of today—up to 9 months as opposed to the current 4 to 6 months. So, to tenderize the meat and remove some of the gaminess before cooking, they needed to be hung.
Modern geese still have a whiff of gaminess, but just enough to make them appealing. There is no need to tenderize the meat, though it is firmer and a bit chewier than turkey, which I find attractive. Most turkeys today are pretty mushy as a result of being over-bred. Geese have been spared this fate because, unlike turkeys, geese can’t be easily inseminated artificially. So we’re stuck with the cycle of nature: Eggs are laid in the spring, geese are generally born in June, and mature birds are ready for slaughter somewhere between late September and mid-October.
But few people think of eating goose until December. Grimaud Farms in Stockton, Calif., sells all its geese (about 2,000) within a week or so in mid-December. “We could sell four to five times more, but it’s hard to organize for one month out of the year, which happens to be the biggest month for our other products,” says owner Claude Bigot.
Like Schiltz, Eberly Poultry in Lancaster County, Pa., and Quattro Game Farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., Grimaud uses the Emden, a white English goose, which has emerged as the favorite over the gray Toulouse French goose, primarily because of color. “Americans don’t like gray meat,” explains Schiltz, who has developed a breed of Emden with a larger breast that includes some bloodlines from the Toulouse as well as Chinese geese. While geese are normally fed a mixture of mostly corn with some wheat or soybeans, Grimaud’s geese, raised on a farm in Salinas, Calif., are fed scraps from a vegetable and salad packing plant in the area.
In size, geese are somewhere between ducks and turkeys, from about 9 to 18 pounds, though birds weighing 10 to 14 pounds are the most common. Larger animals are no less tender than small ones, but the larger the goose, the greater the ratio of meat to bone and the more tasty the breast meat. Figure on about 1.5 pounds raw weight per person.
Of the two birds, both which were free-range, I preferred the fresh Eberly goose over the frozen Schiltz goose. The former was moister and more intensely flavored, though the difference between them wasn’t huge.
How to Roast a Goose
Methods of cooking goose abound, in part because everyone has his own way of rendering the bird’s blanket of fat. I tend to side with the simple methods of producers such as Marcia Schiltz. She roasts 12- to 14-pounders for about three hours at 350° F, or until the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170° F. Another test for doneness is if the legs loosen easily when twisted. While Schiltz doesn’t baste, I think basting gives the breast a more even color. Otherwise, it has a less attractive, mottled look.
Matthew Levin of Moonlight restaurant in New Hope, PA lets his goose dry out for a week in the refrigerator, which obviates the need of pricking the skin to leach out the fat, and also makes the skin very crisp when cooked. Before roasting (a 12 to 14 pound bird will take about 4 hours at 250° F) in a convection oven, he rubs the skin with a thin layer of hoisin sauce to promote caramelizing. At Cetrella Bistro and Café in Half Moon Bay, Calif., chef Erik Cosselmon blanches the goose for a few minutes to tighten the skin, then pricks it to allow fat to drain while cooking. Ariane Daguin, co-owner of Newark, N.J.-based D’Artagnan, which sells geese and other game and fowl, doesn’t see any problem with fat. But she hails from southwest France, the world capital of goose-eating. Daguin roasts geese at 475° F for 15 minutes, then reduces the heat to 375° F and bastes regularly with the rendered fat in the bottom of the pan.
Be careful when handling the fat. Cosselmon’s father once burned down the family house when fat spilled over a too-small roasting pan into the oven. In addition to using a sufficiently large pan, put some water in the bottom to prevent splattering. You may also want to pour out the fat halfway through cooking. But don’t discard it. Vegetables cooked in goose fat are heavenly, especially potatoes. Brussels sprouts, cabbage and root vegetables such as parsnips, rutabaga and turnips are also excellent.
Stuffing for goose can be similar to turkey stuffing, but with the flavor turned up a notch to match the more robust nature of goose. For example, Levin says that dried fruit such as raisins, figs or prunes can be plumped with rum or brandy. Use rye or black bread instead of white bread and porcini or other wild mushrooms in lieu of button mushrooms. But because the goose cavity is small, I’d cook the stuffing separately and stuff the bird with aromatics such as onion, apple, celery, orange or lemon.
Unlike turkey, which often needs gravy to moisten dry meat or add flavor, goose doesn’t require a sauce. A better choice might be a kind of chutney made from nuts and fall fruits. Cosselmon makes one with grape must, pears, apples, figs and hazelnuts.
What Wine with Roast Goose
I was prepared to prefer red rather than white wines with goose, because of its dark meat and hearty nature. And I did like all the reds I tried, including an Haut-Médoc from 1997, a Cahors, Madiran, Barbera and Nebbiolo, though I preferred a peppery Syrah-based St.-Joseph from the Northern Rhône. However, to my astonishment and delight, two whites bested all the reds. Condrieu, the famed Viognier-based Rhône white, was rich enough to stand up to the goose and had a spiciness that cut through the fat. A nicely aged (1989) Vouvray was equally luxurious (with a healthy dose of sweetness from botrytis), and made up for its lack of spice with bracing acidity. An Alsatian Riesling was also goose-friendly. I’d even drink these whites with goose after Christmas.
How to Get Christmas Goose
- D’Artagnan, Newark, N.J., (800) 327-8246; www.dartagnan.com (mail-order sales for Eberly and Quattro)
- Eberly Poultry, Stevens, Pa., (717) 336-6440, www.eberlypoultry.com (for retail stores where geese are available and directions to its outlet store)
- Grimaud Farms, Stockton, Calif., (800) 466-9955 (no mail-order; available at Whole Foods Market, Fresh Fields and Bread & Circus markets)
- Schiltz Goose Farm Inc., Siseton, S.D., (877) 872-4458, www.schiltzfoods.com (for retail stores and mail-order sale)