South Africans may have inherited many festive season traditions from the colonising north, including Santa, pine trees with tinsel, crackers and even snow-themed motifs, but the Christmas table centrepiece in colder climes, the turkey, struggles to find its place in the sun here.
If you go turkey hunting, you’ll find that most major retailers stock the large bird. The statistics show South Africa imported 27 222kg of turkey, both as whole birds and in pieces, in the past year.
But, if this seems to be a big number, there is insufficient demand to sustain a single turkey farmer in the country. The last turkey farmer, Sinzani Turkey Farm, situated in the Brits area, closed down in 2012 – 2013, according to the South African Poultry Association (Sapa). “There are no commercial turkey producers in South Africa at the moment,” it says.
Why hasn’t the turkey caught on?
“The main reason is that the demand for turkey meat in South Africa is seasonal and production costs are very high,” a source at Sapa says.
The outsize bird is pricey compared with the much smaller chicken. A turkey from Pick n Pay will set you back R60 a kilogram; chicken from this retailer is just R35 a kilogram.
The turkeys that make it to our shores are frozen, mostly from Brazil, but also from Canada, the United States and Chile. Woolworths sources its turkeys from Ireland.
“In general, South Africans do not eat whole turkeys throughout the year, so the quantities that are brought in are purely to meet seasonal demand,” said George Southey, manager of food distributor Merlog Foods. This is mostly for Christmas and, to an extent, for Easter.
“The meat remains a popular centrepiece in the festive season spreads of many South African households and consumer demand has remained steady over the years,“ said Shoprite in response to emailed questions.
“Shoprite and Checkers stores have adequate volumes of turkey in stock for the upcoming festive season, with its frozen whole turkey imported from Brazil in various sizes to allow customers to choose according to their budget and number of guests.”
Chef and cookbook author Lesego Semenya says: “The majority of South Africans didn’t really ever have a culture of eating turkey, but in families that did follow this American trend, a lot are turning to more local-themed menus for Christmas.”
A survey of the Mail & Guardian newsroom found a single party planning to cook a turkey this Christmas.
He warned: “If you get it wrong, it’s very dry. You have to cook it for hours. Sometimes your timing is wrong so everybody is sitting, waiting for turkey — it’s in the oven and it’s not done. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Tsogo Sun chef Matthew Foxon says: “For turkey to be delicious it takes prep time, such as brine the breast and slow roast with fat or butter under the skin.”
Wits University anthropologist Robert Thornton says what makes Christmas is not a certain bird, but the feasting aspects. The celebration has, since the 19th century, moved from being centred on the birth of Jesus Christ to being at the mercy of commercialisation.
“Christmas is a global celebration — as a commercial, feasting and gifting adventure,” he says.
Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business journalist at the M&G