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Are we ready to embrace the Michaelmas goose once again?

Roast goose Eating a Michaelmas goose is believed to bring luck for the next financial year

Cooking a goose to mark Michaelmas had all but fallen out of favour since its heyday. But now a small number of British geese once earmarked for Christmas are the stars of this "forgotten" feast once again.

"The Michaelmas goose is a very special thing," says Eddie Hegarty, the chairman of the British Goose Producers, and he's not the only one who thinks so.

The traditional goose meal is seeing a revived interest in the UK, the industry says, with between 5-10% of British geese now being reared for the autumn instead of Christmas, which is the traditional seasonal focus.

Around 250,000 geese are reared each year nationwide, according to the British Poultry Council, and as demand for the meat has increased, the industry has seen a small but steady growth in recent years.

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"There's quite a revival going on because people are more educated about food and more willing to cook themselves now," says Mr Hegarty.

But while people are once again cooking the goose in September, why did they stop eating it in the first place?

Michaelmas celebrates St Michael and all angels, which falls on 29 September for most of the UK. There are anomalies though: It's 4 October in Suffolk, and 11 October in Norfolk.

It falls near the autumn equinox and also marks a medieval festival when harvest was finished and farmers paid rent to the landowners, often offering geese as part of the exchange.

Goose fairs became popular across the country, with farmers driving their geese for miles to get to market.

The Michaelmas goose itself became associated with paying off debts, and according to folklore eating one on the day would bring financial luck for the coming year.

But over the last century "the seasons' festivals we used to have, fell out of fashion", says food writer Karen Burns-Booth, who specialises in food history and traditional recipes.

"We lost a lot of the agricultural emphasis particularly just after WWI… people became more industrialised, started to move to cities, therefore all those festivals sort of fell along the wayside."

The British Goose Producers, which is part of the British Poultry Council, has been running a Michaelmas goose awareness campaign for the 2012 season - coming up with new recipes, introducing geese at food festivals and training young chefs to cook with the birds.

And a "revival" in interest can be seen in pubs and restaurants in particular, says Mr Hegarty.

Why eat blackberries on Michaelmas?

Blackberries

Source: Karen Burns-Booth, food writer

  • According to an English folklore, Michaelmas day is also known as "devil's spit day" and is the last day blackberries should be picked to be eaten
  • It was said that after this day, the devil scorched blackberries on bushes with his fiery breath or even urinated on them

"This time of year it's something special they can put on the menus.

"And because they've seen goose becoming more popular at Christmas time, they're bringing it back, revising an old tradition."

Goose producer Howard Blackwell is introducing Michaelmas goose to the restaurant he owns.

"It's not seen outside of Christmas much so hopefully they'll be popular," he says.

"It's when geese sort of become ready, end of September."

Michaelmas geese tend to be leaner than their Christmas cousins, because they are slaughtered earlier and have been fed on "lovely lush spring grass", while Christmas geese fatten up during the winter, explains Mr Hegarty.

A traditional Michaelmas goose can be roasted and served in the same way as a Christmas goose, but a number of recipes instead use seasonal ingredients such as apples and blackberries, or marrow and runner beans.

Annie Cliff's restaurant at The Talbot Inn in Worcestershire is making apple and blackberry sauce with roasted goose and pigeon roulade, as its Michaelmas dish.

Geese Up to 10% of the 250,000 geese reared each year are for the Michaelmas market

But despite more restaurants now seemingly willing to serve up Michaelmas goose, the expense of the bird could be preventing some businesses from putting it on the menu, says Ms Cliff.

"It's not easy to get any margins out of it," she says.

"But I just think that it's traditional, it's seasonal and I get asked for it."

In 2011 the average price a producer's goose fetched was £6.17 per kg carcass weight, compared to £2.63 per kg of duck, and £1.56 per kg of turkey, according to Defra.

But Eddie Hegarty thinks the price of goose is "looking very reasonable" when compared to rising costs of beef and lamb.

"You've got to remember it's a seasonal bird," he says.

But with the Michaelmas goose market remaining so niche, can the seasonal meat really be revived and brought into the mainstream?

"It's nice to be able to do it but I think Christmas is the main market really," says Mr Hegarty.

He says that enough geese are being produced to keep up with the existing demand, but convincing more goose producers to take on the task can be tricky.

"It's getting people to do it, because it's a very small marketplace. It's a very specialist market as well.

"You have to be geared up to do it really. It's a lot of work to gear up for a few birds."

And for people looking to cook a Michaelmas goose at home, procuring the bird in early autumn can take a little planning.

Supermarkets do not begin stocking geese until the Christmas period, so customers must instead head straight to producers or specialist shops.

For goose producers like Eddie Hegarty however, it is preserving an ancient tradition that could otherwise be lost which drives their campaign to bring the Michaelmas goose back.

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