“In 1986 my parents came to the traditional Dartmoor hill farm known as Frenchbeer,” says John, son of Christine and Mike Malseed. “While building up a sheep flock and a beef herd, a few Christmas turkeys were raised to aid cash flow.” The birds proved very popular – and over 30 years later, the Malseeds’ award-winning turkeys are the show-stopping centre of organic Christmas dinners across the country.
Frenchbeer Farm sits above Chagford on the north-east of Dartmoor National Park. In total, the Malseeds tend 1200 acres of moorland and upland hills. They still rear suckler cows, hill sheep, geese, some lovely Dartmoor ponies – and two helpful hounds named Jack and Wilf, who can be seen herding flocks across the moor and down the lanes. But the Frenchbeer turkeys really are the stars of the show.
The Malseeds choose Bronze turkeys: a traditional breed that grows slowly but gives a wonderfully rich natural flavour. They’re also some very lucky birds! From the pastures where the organic flock is free to roam, they have a cracking view: looking down over misty fields and woodland, far across the West Devon landscape.
The turkeys arrive on the farm as fluffy one-day-old chicks. For the 6 months it takes them to reach full maturity (compared to an average of 4 months for some supermarket birds) the turkeys enjoy a varied life: stretching their legs in the swathes of pasture, and eating a natural diet of organic grains as well as the grass, herbs, berries and bugs they can forage. To drink? Dartmoor spring water. They sleep safely in warm, airy sheds - and because Bronze birds are an intelligent breed, the Malseeds even give them toys to play with to keep them entertained.
“We take great pride in creating a quality product which we know will become the highlight of one of the most important meals of the year,” the family say.
It is a big responsibility: every Christmas, we hear from people who have been looking forward to their roast turkey all year round. These fantastical slow-reared birds really deliver on flavour. Christine describes them as “self-basting”; at full maturity, they have built up thin layers of fat between their layers of muscle. “This ensures the meat will be tender and succulent all the way through when cooked,” she says.
“All our turkeys are dry-plucked by hand,” says John. This is skilled and time-consuming work; a special plucking team has to be brought in every December. Once plucked, the birds can be hung for 10 days. John explains that this vital step causes an enzyme change in the meat, which results in a 3% weight loss, but a huge increase in flavour.
30 years on from their first flock of just 70 turkeys, Frenchbeer Farm is still a small, traditional, family-run operation. “From beginning to end, we have complete control of the whole process,” the family say. All in all, it’s no wonder the Malseeds’ turkeys are Great Taste and Gold Taste of the West awards winners.