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Licques Turkey Festival

Back in December 2004, my former university lecturer - Mike - contacted me with a proposition; did I want to travel to France with him as a cameraman on a pilot for a French travel series? Well, has almost every French president since 1974 been unfaithful to his wife? Yes!

It was not until we were already on the Eurostar, before I confided in Mike two important facts; first, my French language skills were not as not as good as I had implied when he offered me the job, and second I wasn’t particularly comfortable around birds.

Mike quietly took this information on board and when we arrived in the village of Licques, we headed straight for a local farm where Mike instructed me to enter the turkey field to film the turkeys. I was unprepared when 15,000 turkeys came charging out of the barn towards me.

Licques is a small, sleepy farming village in the north of France, it is however famous for the Fête des Dindes - the Festival of Turkeys. Since the 17th century the village conducts a celebratory procession of turkeys, where the ‘Brotherhood of the Turkey’ march 150 turkeys through the village.

We stayed in the Hotel les Frangins in St Omer, a largish town about 20 miles East of Licques. Apparently the lift in the hotel could only take one person at a time, when it worked, and my room overlooked a sex shop which got plenty of visitors throughout the evening. The television in the hotel bar screened, day and night, harness racing, an unusual form of horse racing where the horses pull a two-wheeled cart containing a jockey who seems in constant danger of falling out the back of the cart. I should note, my notes from the time are a bit sparse as I never intended to be writing about the event; to my mind the pilot we were filming would be picked up and I would begin a glittering career as a globe-hopping cameraman for the BBC. (Spoiler: That didn’t happen).

The next morning we headed back to Licques for the parade. In the general milling around I tried ‘Licquoise’, a liqueur made from a hot chicken broth, that was brewed in a huge cauldron in the town square next to a stone statue of a turkey. The festival takes place on the second Sunday before Christmas, so the parade is very much a sendoff, as the turkeys are being marched from the farm to the abattoir.

Licques Turkey Festival

The parade itself was a slow moving affair, as the turkeys bimbled along, gobbling, squawking and shitting as a marching band accompanied various dignitaries in traditional dress. Local children also formed part of the parade, dressed in little chef outfits, and carrying knives and forks. Gotta love the French.

Accompanying the marching band was the President of the Brotherhood of Turkeys Guy Savary, a man with an incredible moustache, performed a song of his own composition Y’a qu’à Licques - ‘There’s Only Licques’. I found this video on Youtube which opens with Guy Savary performing the song.

There is a Christmas Market, with various turkey products as well as other local items, and a competition to judge the best turkey, though I couldn’t identify one turkey from another.

On our last day of location filming, Mike and I were invited to the local abattoir to meet the owners and get some extra footage. I don’t remember if we ever filmed any additional footage, as our hosts ended up cracking open several bottles of red wine in the boardroom, and took us on a cheerfully merry tour of the slaughter house. I may not have every managed to attend a piss up in a brewery; but I have been to a piss up in an abattoir, which should get bonus points for originality.

This last December - 2022 - was the first Fête des Dindes in two years, with Covid-related lockdowns. I’m glad the festival is up and running again, though sadly the risk bird flu forced locals to shelve the parade itself. The FT reports (archive.is) that instead, the parade was led by a 4ft stone statue of a turkey named Alfred on the back of a tractor-drawn trailer.