Turkey is the traditional choice of roast dinner at Christmas. But beyond that how much do you know about this strange looking beast and how it came to grace our tables at this festive time of year? In this post we fill in the back story – and it’s a surprising one.
What did the Aztecs ever do for us?
Where did this bird come from originally? The creature we now think of as the turkey originated in Mexico. It was domesticated by forerunners of the Aztecs and when Cortés arrived at the court of Moctezuma in 1519 he discovered it was devoured in huge quantities. Moctezuma levied around 1,000 birds a day from his people and gave the Spaniards a batch of 1,500, along with a great deal of gold, in the months before Cortés’s men razed his capital.
The Spaniards had no idea how to classify these weird creatures. Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, a chronicler of the early Spanish empire, described the Mexicans’ gift as being “a great multitude of theyr peacockes, both cockes and hennes, deade and alyve…to cary with theym into Spayne for encrease”. They certainly didn’t describe them as “turkeys”!
Supply chain management Ottoman-style
Long before Cortés ever set foot in Central America people in Europe and England were eating “turkeys”. These were, in actual fact, African guinea-fowl. Originally introduced and domesticated by the Romans these died out across the continent in the dark ages. The birds were still reared in the Middle East however, and were being widely distributed around the Mediterranean by sea-faring Arabs.
When the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and turned it into Istanbul, these Arab traders swore allegiance to the Turkish Caliph. In the eyes of Christian Europeans these made them “Turkey merchants”. A lucrative alliance between the merchants of Venice and those of the Ottoman empire meant trade increased, and guinea fowl, which were known as “turkey birds”, became increasingly available across Christendom.
New and improved!
Then Cortez brought his birds back from the Americas. They swiftly found their way from Spain to Istanbul on Arab galleys. The first of them were shipped from here to Venice in 1530. History is a little vague on dates, but the English navigator William Strickland is credited with introducing the turkey into England around 1541. By 1550 they had got as far as Scandinavia, which is the same year Strickland was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock in his pride proper”.
These new birds were obviously rather different from the original African guinea fowl – but nobody was about to quibble. There was a hot market for gloriously feathered poultry that could command a large tray. Pheasants, herons, swans, and even flamingos and peafowl had all been devoured in medieval courts. Not because their flesh was any sweeter than chickens’ (it wasn’t, by all accounts) but because the creatures themselves were rare and spectacular – any one of them served to make an especially spectacular point at the end of a banquet board.
It would appear that the Arab traders and their Venetian counterparts were able to make the switch from guinea fowl to the bigger, better and more bling bird from Mexico without the customers giving the matter too much thought and so the turkey as we know it now, became widespread. Domestic turkeys have been selectively bred to grow larger in size for their meat and, to this day, remain the popular choice for dinner on special occasions such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.
What will be 2019’s big new thing?
Want to discover more exciting new food products with fascinating provenance stories to tell? Time to register for our show then! If, on the other hand, you’re a producer or supplier, best book your stand early – it’s a great opportunity to showcase your offerings to eager buyers. In the meantime……Merry Christmas everyone! If turkey’s not your thing, what will you be having for Christmas dinner?