Scandinavian geese – both wild and domesticated – have been immortalized in the famous book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, written by Swedish author and Nobel Prize laureate Selma Lagerlöf and published in 1906.
It tells the story of a naughty boy called Nils, who is turned into a Tomte – a small man with magical powers, guarding livestock and farm life – for the way he mistreats the farm animals and for involuntarily riding the farm goose and following a flock of wild geese migrating to Lapland. Lagerlöf’s descriptions of the Swedish landscape and customs featured in the book are the most precise and beautiful descriptions of Scandinavia ever written.
Scandinavians have kept both geese and ducks for millennia, and both have always been extensively farmed. They are able to thrive mostly on grass, so it was normal for every farm to have a few, either to eat or to sell for a good price at market. In communities untouched by agricultural-supporting laws and money, geese and ducks (which do not compete with human needs for grain) are far cheaper to keep than chickens, which basically can eat the same as humans. In the Scandinavian over-supported farming communities, the picture is askew, and these birds cost a fortune.
Geese and ducks are certainly not everyday fare in Scandinavia. In general, both are eaten only for festive occasions, even if some people hold on to the delicious way of eating salted duck with horseradish sauce as a summer dish. And twice a year the consumption of both rockets: at Christmas and on St. Martin’s Eve on the 10th of November.
Appearance and taste
There are several special Nordic breeds of both geese and ducks. In recent years, Scandinavians have tend to buy more of the meaty Barbary ducks, though many people stick with the old breeds, which have more intramuscular fat and lack the gamy taste of the Barbary.
Geese and ducks must be raised on abundant grass and with plenty of fresh air if they are to end up as the truly wonderful meal they can be. And the best are raised organically, slowly and eating nothing but fresh grass and grains. This gives a taste, and lots of intramuscular fat that you won’t find in conventionally farmed birds. The latter are so intensively reared that meat and fat are mostly separated in the body, with far too much fat under the skin and in the belly. Organic birds are easier to prepare to the succulence you want. Conventionally raised and fed animals tend to leave a small, dry bird in a pool of fat.
Buying and storing
Geese and ducks must look as though they are made of marzipan: form to the touch, the breast arched and covered with light yellow or white skin (according to the feed). The skin must be without holes, and untorn, or it will never be crispy; if it has purplish spots or blemished, you should not buy it.
There will always be feathers and stubble left, as well as pieces of peeling wax, but if it looks too furry buy another one – it’s quite a job to pluck a large bird clean with tweezers, and you need to get all the feathers off as they stink when roasted. Remember to check that the goblets are inside the bird as you will need these for the sauce/gravy.
Most ducks for eating weigh around 3kg, but you can find monster ducks weighing up to 4.5kg. The bigger, the better, since a duck’s carcass is huge compared to its size: the carcass of a 3kg duck is much the same size as that of a heavier bird, so the extra weight is pure meat. Ducks weighing less than 3kg are too young and have too little taste. A large duck will feed five to seven people. A 3kg duck is not really enough for four.
A goose weights around 5-7kg, and again the bigger ones are much better value. While not so monstrously sized as turkey, a goose can certainly feed quite a gathering: a large one is enough for 10-12 people.
Most birds are sold frozen, and musty thaw slowly in the fridge for 2-3 days. A fresh one will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Both duck and goose are fat, juicy birds, and they can become meltingly tender if slow roasted. They have dark, hefty meat, standing up to the traditional spiced, vinegary trimmings.
In Denmark and parts of Norway, ducks and geese are eaten on Christmas Eve, and are always prepared in more or less the same manner: roasted with an apple and prune stuffing, pickled red cabbage, caramelized potatoes and gravy. Trimmings vary, but might include lingonberry, apple sauce spiced with horseradish, halved apples with jelly or baked apples. It’s usually the same for St. Martin’s Eve, though some people try to be more innovative, as the pressure of tradition on that occasion is less severe.
The summery way of cooking, in which the bird is salted and slowly poached, is more elegant and served with creamy horseradish, new potatoes and creamed spinach. The salting dyes the meat an appetizing pink, and makes it even juicier. Anyone who tastes this dish will never forget it.
Compared with turkey, goose and duck meat is very rarely dry, and leftovers are a treat to eat. At Christmas few things beat rye bread topped with some cold jellied gravy, duck or goose meat and pickled red cabbage.
The third traditional way to prepare goose is with gule erter, a filling and delicious yellow split pea soup, served with sausages, vegetables and salted pork. In more well-to-do homes, it is traditionally made with salted goose also, and it’s wonderful, even if it has been diluted to poorer versions over time, and heads the list of dished that Nordic people really hate to eat.
The bird’s carcass, bones and neck, as well as leftovers from the roasted bird, can be made into a wonderfully flavored stock with the addition of a few onions, carrots and herbs such as sage, thyme and bay leaf, and maybe a glass of dark beer. Cover with water and simmer for a couple of hours, strain and use for sauce or soup.
And what can we say about the duck and goose fat, other than that it is pure liquid gold in your kitchen? Nothing beats potatoes or root vegetables sizzled in this fat, or pâtés and liver paste made with it. And rendered duck or goose fat is heaven on rye bread, just sprinkled with salt; and it’s the traditional spread to use with herrings, sausages and most meat toppings on open sandwiches. It can be used on its own, or melted with pork fat, which is solid at room temperature, to give it a higher melting point.
Scandinavian Goose and Duck, written by Tor Kjolberg