by Don Schrider, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy — Illustration by Georges Louis LeClerc Buffon
On Feb. 25, 2008, about 70 people congregated at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., to take part in a blind taste test comparing one variety of industrial turkey and eight varieties of heritage turkey. All the food professionals, chefs, food connoisseurs and food writers who attended had one thing in common — an extreme interest in outstanding food.
The objective of the event was to compare flavors of nine varieties of turkey in a fair and unbiased way. This exceptional event was conducted blind, with each of the varieties cut into bite-sized pieces, placed in covered dishes at numbered stations. Numbered toothpicks and scorecards were supplied to help in evaluating the turkeys. In addition, whole, roasted turkeys were displayed, with a corresponding number, so that appearance could be rated as well.
During the competition, turkeys were scored based on flavor, tenderness, texture, aroma and appearance. After tasting all of the turkeys, the excited crowd was invited to vote for their favorite variety before the big reveal. Each of the nine turkeys had supporters, but after the tally was calculated, all eight of the heritage varieties ranked higher than the lone industrial variety — a Butterball.
The obvious winner in this historical taste test was the midget white turkey, with second place being secured by the bourbon red. These two top favorites each gathered nearly twice as many votes as any one of the other varieties.
The other six heritage turkey varieties participating were the royal palm, slate, Narragansett, chocolate, bronze and black. Heritage turkeys are well-known for slow to moderate growth rates and many are considered rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Seven of the nine varieties had been grown on Ayrshire Farm following the standards of Humane Farm Animal Care: They were fed organic feed and were raised and processed humanely. The two varieties not raised there were the standard bronze and the Butterball.
To date, this was the biggest comparison of turkey varieties. It was also a chance for several the turkey varieties to be “boarded” onto the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste — a designation identifying unique culinary flavors and traditions. Invitees were excited to be present for an Ark boarding, and enthusiastically endorsed the merit of the slate, royal palm and midget white turkey varieties.
A partnership of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care, Slow Food USA and Ayrshire Farm produced this event.