Tuesday 10 December 2013

Christmas in Kingsley

In the days of my childhood in Kingsley the bird most often served up for Christmas lunch was a chicken or to be more precise a capon. It will seem hard to imagine today but chicken in those days was eaten on high days and holidays. I suppose as a result of the war, rationing and a general lack of poultry food, the mass production of chickens was nothing like it is today. Of course, supermarkets had not been dreamed up and most meat was then bought from butchers. That meat was, to a large extent, sourced locally. Therefore, there were a number of factors which determined that chicken was not an every day, and readily available meat, as it is today. 

Apart from the chickens which were kept in the village on most of the farms, quite a lot of village people kept a few hens and an odd cockerel or two. These provided some eggs and the occasional bird for the table. My Grand Parents kept poultry and so did my father. These back garden birds were, for the most part, fed upon kitchen scraps, old bread and seasonal greenery. Thanks to our brilliant politicians this is a practice which is now against the law. As with many things these great thinkers do, they issued a blanket ban on feeding kitchen waste of any kind to most forms of domestic animals. This was a quite normal over reaction by politicians to the last foot and mouth outbreak. The fact that, in general terms, it is almost totally unenforceable and most small poultry keepers ignore it completely is neither here nor there. What, of course, this wonderful stroke of brilliance has ensured is the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of useable food is consigned to land fill and massive amounts of energy which otherwise could be saved, is expended on making commercial animal feed products. But, as I am sure you are all aware, the politicians always know best !! 

Anyway, lots of village people then kept their poultry which, no doubt, helped with their food budgets. The Christmas bird, was therefore, often a home reared capon. Carefully reared and fed in anticipation of the great day. Caponising was the process of chemically castrating the male bird. An implement rather like a syringe was loaded with a pellet which was about a quarter of an inch long and twice as thick as a normal pencil lead. To perform the operation correctly the needle of the syringe should be inserted into an area of loose skin, lifted from the birds neck, as high up towards its head as possible. The plunger pushed in and the pellet deposited into the birds neck between skin and neck. This had the effect of causing the bird to lose its male characteristics. Its comb did not grow and the normal loud crow of a cockerel was reduced to a coarse croak. The bird lost all interest in doing the things cockerels normally do, chasing hens around the chicken run, and ate rather more food. Thus the caponised birds grew to quite large sizes and produced much more meat than was otherwise possible. I still have my caponising syringe and the instruction leaflet that came with it. The instructions tell the user to place the pellet as high up the birds neck as possible. This was due to the fact that people used the necks of chicken, as a part of the gibblets, to make gravy or stock. The fact of the matter is the injected pellet was a huge dose of female hormone. It was this that ultimately caused the banning of the practice of caponising. It was found that the advice on the caponising leaflets was not being followed, pellets were being inserted lower down the neck and subsequently consumed with the gravy and stock. This, it was claimed, was having some strange side effects on human males and therefore had to be stopped ! I believe capons can still be purchased but the process is now achieved by more surgical means. 

This then was how the festive bird, for many Kingsley people of that era was produced. Just before the great day the bird to be eaten would be dispatched, plucked and dressed and hung until ready for cooking on Christmas morning. The stuffing for the bird, in our house, was home-made and would either be sage and onion or rosemary and thyme. Christmas lunch was usually served rather later in the afternoon as various festive activities took up a large part of the morning. 

The other popular bird for Christmas lunch was the goose and some of the local farms reared geese. Throughout most of the period that I lived in Kingsley there was, each year, a large Christmas livestock market which was held in Alton. At this event almost any bird or beast could be purchased. Game was plentiful as were all manner of joints of meat which were all auctioned. The Christmas market was a great social event and people travelled from all around to attend. Included in the market was the Christmas livestock show where prime farm animals were exhibited and judged before being sold to local butchers. All of this was recorded class by class in the local newspapers together with photographs of the winning animals. Great days, sadly long gone. 

By and large turkey had not become popular as the Christmas bird of choice and I had not tasted its meat until one Christmas when I was ten or eleven years of age. I happened to be friendly with the two Griffiths boys, Robin and Peter, who lived with their parents in Foundry House which was, (and I suppose still is ), almost opposite the turning down Sickles Lane. Its neighbour, was then, the Foundry which produced various metal work and contained a blacksmiths forge. The two boys were, for most of each year, away at boarding school somewhere so I only got to see then during their school holidays. I don’t recall which Christmas it was but on that particular year the three of us went fishing, a couple of days after Boxing Day, in the river to the right of the bridge, just before the turning for Oxney Farm, where the beagles were kennelled. In those days there was a large and sweeping bend in the river, a hundred yards or so west of the bridge, which was quite deep at its farthest point. On the northern, (Kingsley), side there was a large area of sand which was below the bank and provided quite nice shelter from the wind. We spent the day there and caught half a dozen nice trout. Robin and Peter had been sent with a rather splendid picnic for the three of us and this contain turkey sandwiches. My goodness did I enjoy them and I still like turkey sandwiches to this day. The other remarkable and memorable event which took place that day was the fact that whilst we were sitting on the sandbank fishing we were privileged to see a small group of fresh water lamprey’s scouring the sandy floor of the river for food. These strange, and rare, little creatures were about six inches long and a greenish colour. There were about eight of them. I had never seen any before and have not done so since. I doubt if very many, if any, people in Kingsley rear their own festive birds today but I would like to think the crow of the occasional cockerel can still be heard within the village. I hope you all have a very happy and festive Christmas and I wish you all the compliments of the season. Derek.

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