We sat down with Bi-Rite’s 18-year veteran Head Retail Buyer, Chili Montes, to chat heritage breeds, broad-breasted birds and how to pick the perfect turkey for you.
Come Thanksgiving, we’re often overwhelmed for choice when it comes to turkey options. Why are heritage turkeys one option we should consider?
There are a few main reasons to consider buying a heritage bird. First off, heritage birds have pure genetics and are pasture raised. The word “heritage” refers to ten specific breeds that were raised in America prior to the 1930s. These birds are anatomically very different from the more typical broad-breasted varieties and therefore both taste and cook differently. They have longer legs, a stronger bone structure, thicker bone density and can actually fly. These birds have a fuller flavor and, I’d say, if you’re intrigued by the diversity and genetics of heritage birds, it could be a great option for you.
Are there many ranchers raising heritage breed turkeys?
No, they are actually extremely limited. This is due in large part to the industrialization of poultry in the 1930s. Large companies came on the scene and implemented efficiencies that, over time, created commodity poultry. That said, one producer in particular, Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, has had a dramatic impact on saving the species. Known as the godfather of heritage turkeys, Reese is a third-generation poultry farmer in Kansas who has preserved the pure breed lines of several heritage breeds that were either undesirable or soon to become extinct, including Standard Bronze, White Holland, Blacks, Narragansett and Bourbon Red.
The “godfather of heritage turkeys” is a pretty impressive title. How has Frank Reese shaped the heritage turkey industry?
It is an impressive title and extremely well-deserved. I traveled to Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch this past summer, along with Chris Timm, our Divisadero Market’s Butcher Department Head, to meet Frank Reese in person and see his operation first-hand. A prominent figure in the Slow Food movement, he’s a one-man operation raising heritage turkeys the traditional way. So, you see, he really is the godfather of heritage turkeys.
Tell me about the other turkeys Bi-Rite is offering this year. What is special about each of them?
This year we set out to source the best-tasting, ethically raised, broad-breasted bird available, which led us to the folks at Ferndale Farms in Minnesota. They’re a family owned and operated farm and have been raising their turkeys free-range and without antibiotics since 1939. We’re also proud to continue our relationship with Mary’s Certified Organic Free-Range Turkeys this year. An excellent local option, Mary’s birds are always full of delicious traditional flavor.
How do you guide guests towards finding the right bird for them? What questions should we ask ourselves? Also, any cooking tips for the big day?
Generally speaking, if you know you need a lot of white meat on the table, and are after that traditional flavor, a broad-breasted bird may be for you. If you’re not sure, I’d recommend you come in to the Markets and talk to me or one of our butchers. We’re always happy to chat and can help steer you in the right direction. For a traditional roast turkey recipe, check out our recipe and tips for how to maximize flavor.