Just a few days ago, I spent a wonderful morning with the Pritchard family at Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Virginia. The farm has been in the family, and producing, since the early 19th century. A few years back, Betsy and Forrest made the decision to focus full time on running the farm. It’s a family affair, for sure, with their mother running the B&B (and joining in the farm work between guest stays); and, Forrest’s wife, Nancy, making delectable pasta and sauces.
Driving through an ancient orchard along the driveway, sheep raise their heads to see who is coming. The pigs are having a fantastic time under the trees, finding windfall apples – snarfling and snuffling. I had to stop, open the windows and listen. So tame, they came to the fence, clearly looking for goodies.
At the end of the drive is a Dutch/Federal style Manor House with narrow buildings on either side – dependencies -all fashioned from bricks made on the premises. It’s a picture-perfect Virginia farm. Across the 400 acres, there are rolling pastures where cattle, sheep and pigs graze. I head up to a large fenced area that holds all the poultry in a grassy field. When I visited in July, there were ducks, turkeys and chickens. Today, it’s just turkeys and chickens. (See my Duck tales.)
I’ve been a customer for several years, but this year, I wanted to know more about the bird on my Thanksgiving table, and that’s why I am at the farm.
Betsy and I walked up the hill to the field where the turkeys were grazing on grass behind a small, makeshift fence. The fence is a new addition, moving with the turkeys as they are relocated for fresh grass (they really do a number on the grass in a very short time!) The fence had to be erected recently when coyote and fox started taking young birds. Sadly, one coyote killed nine turkeys, eating only one, leaving behind eight bloody corpses. Serious frustration for the turkey farmer!
Smith Meadows raises two commercial breeds – the broad breasted white and the broad breasted bronze. When asked why no heritage breeds, the answer came down to dollars and sense. Heritage chicks cost more than twice as much as commercial chicks, and they have a higher mortality rate. All I know is Betsy’s got some tasty birds. They’ve graced my holiday table for the last five years.
Betsy says she learned some good lessons this year with her brood of 300. Chicks arrive in the mail in June and July, staggered across a few weeks. In fact, those started in July did better than those started earlier. Better weather, more consistent warmth. The birds are raised to a particular weight, not for particular number of days, aiming for 10-14 lbs. Evidently, with smaller families, the days of the 25# turkey are over. I say, good riddance to dried out turkey – roast two smaller birds instead! Betsy calls and talks to the turkeys as we walk among them. They’re definitely interested in us, chattering and preening.
Betsy and Forrest started selling directly to the customer in 1996 through farmers markets around the Washington, DC metro area. They currently raise about 4000 chickens each year, as well as the turkeys. At any time, they might have 200 cows, 125 hogs and 800 laying hens. And lamb. Heaven. Their lamb is some of the best I’ve ever tasted – I assumed it was due to the rich green pastures, but Betsy explained the efforts she’s made to balance the minerals they take in – minerals that are critical to a lamb’s health.
We walked down to the processing house where turkeys were meeting their maker. It was quick and humane. That’s all I need to say. No screaming. No anxiety.
Once dispatched, the bird is quickly scalded and then put in a gentle tumbling plucking machine. When the feathers are off, the bird is passed back to the stainless steel processing tables. Here, the two farm interns (hard to believe that’s the same smiling face I see every Saturday at my market) are cleaning up a nice looking turkey.
I watched as the birds were processed. Great care is taken to clean and prepare the turkey for the customer, all done by hand to limit any bruising or tearing.
Here’s Betsy doing the final inspection – getting all the pin feathers and feather pins out.
After watching for awhile (I wondered later if I should have jumped in to help, but…) I walked down the path to visit with Nancy in the kitchen. Smith Meadows has a brisk pasta and sauce market business. I have my favorites (Sweet Potato Ravioli, Apple Cheddar Ravioli, Oat & Winter Wheat Fettucine.)
There were great heaps of green garlic scapes, nuts, cheese and oil ready for the food processor. And rectangular slabs of freshly made pasta dough ready for the pasta machine. I will admit to pasta-machine-envy.
When we were parting company, I asked Betsy a question that’s been on my mind since disassembling the ducks. Do her customers want cut-up chicken? Yes, of course they do. But she encourages them to watch the videos to see how it’s done. Here’s one I like linked here.
I always buy whole chickens and will admit that I most often roast them whole, but recently, after the duck education, I decided to break down two chickens for various dishes – eight leg quarters for my new favorite go-to dish from food52, Rosy Chicken, breasts for some charcuterie (post to come) and carcasses, necks, wing tips and scraps for stock.
Above all, I think I most appreciate the nose-to-beak benefits of homemade stock.
I keep chicken, duck and other stock in 6 cup measures, in ziplock bags (freeze flat on a sheet pan for best storing!) in the freezer. Six cups is the perfect quantity for one batch of soup.
Chicken (or duck or turkey) Stock, makes about 8 cups
Two chicken carcasses, necks, wing tips and scraps (about two pounds)
3 quarts cold water
2 onions, quartered (onion skin can go in the pot, too, as it helps color the stock)
4 carrots, cut in thirds
2 celery stalks, or the celery leaves from the stalk
1 T peppercorns
6-8 fresh thyme stalks
2 rosemary stalks
1 bay leaf
Cook for at least four hours, covered. Sometimes I cook mine for six hours.
Strain and cook another hour.
Cool quickly in a bowl held over an ice bath to retain the best flavor.
Refrigerate overnight. Skim the fat. Freeze.
Make a batch today. You’ll love how the house smells and you will thank me at Thanksgiving.
PS I don’t salt my stock so I can control the salt in soups and sauces made from the stock.