Throughout the 16th, 17th & 18th centuries, December saw the roads into London transformed into a winter wonderland of feathers, fowl and frenzy! The Great Drove was afoot!
Hungry urban mouths had to be fed, and this meant the mass import of livestock and produce into the capital from the surrounding countryside. All in preparation for the resplendently festive Christmas table! These thoroughfares were known as ‘drove-roads’ and it was the drover’s job to slowly herd his gaggle of squawking geese and turkeys into the big city, where his lovingly tended flock would command a far higher price amongst the capital’s rapidly aspiring middle-classes.
The soul leaps for joy at the very thought! An army of slowly shuffling webbed-feet as far as the eye can see! What a cacophony of sound must have met the ear. Honking and quacking, chattering and squawking! All tended by an anxious drovesman, desperate to ensure his livelihood was delivered safe and sound in one piece!
These drove-roads extended some hundreds of miles. Such a pilgrimage must truly have been a wonder to behold! And what of the drovers? The journey was long and cold. Their solace was the conveniently dispersed network of country inns and coaching-houses, all of which offered a tempting draft of ale and good plain, simple English fare. This was meant to fill, nourish and sustain the weary traveller through whatever hardships the road might throw his way.
In return for a share of groaning tables laden with rustic cheeses, meat-pies, roasted meats and freshly-baked bread; the drover would occasionally sacrifice a straggler or two from his flock in payment. These offerings would’ve been prepared in the simplest of ways; drawing their rich flavour from the time-honoured staples of the English country larder. The mouth waters at the thought of rich, salty smoked bacon, freshly churned butter, sweet winter-store onions and hardy garden herbs.
This dish pays tribute to the drovers of old. Although their toil is long past, it is not forgotten! At this time of year, I smile to think of the trials they must have faced, and the stories they told around the warm fires of crowded coaching inns. Whilst loyal to their memory, I cannot entirely echo their diet! This is a low-carb blog; so the bread and pastry which sustained them through the cold winter nights will not be bolstering my own fat reserves! My energy needs are not a fraction of theirs; nor is my constitution! But when food is as rich and wholesome as this, who needs carbohydrate? Not we!
This recipe requires a good, sturdy cast-iron pan. Place this on the hob with a generous knob of butter. Dice your smoked bacon into small chunks and pan-fry until golden and brown. Add to this coarsely chopped onion, leeks and garlic, then add your turkey to the pan. Seal this on a high heat, before stirring in sliced fennel and a good whack of chopped fresh herbs. Warmly fragrant sage and thyme would be my choice, but this can naturally be varied to your preference.
Pour on boiling water until the liquid just laps ‘chin-height’ of the pan’s contents. Please note – no wine or alcohol is needed to deglaze this dish. The flavour is delivered solely by the plain, honest and wholesome ingredients we see before us; tangy fennel, smoked bacon and savoury herbs. We need nothing more.
Place the lid firmly on the pan and oven-roast for up to one hour, until the liquid is all but reduced and the turkey is soft and tender. I serve this with baked garlic field-mushrooms, cooked for 20 minutes in a hot oven with a generous spoon of garlic butter on top and lots of freshly milled black-pepper.
So at table in the warm; spare a thought or two to the drover on his long, hard journey. And maybe raise a glass to his memory. His food legacy will certainly not disappoint, so lets all drink to that!
Thank you for reading and bon ap!