There are many fine reasons to live in the United Kingdom, where my family and I spend the school-year months. Being a cooking type of person, naturally many of my favorite reasons to live here involve food, and ingredients that can be had more readily here than in Connecticut where we spend the summers and Christmas.
This is particularly true of game birds: especially in the autumn, of course, the shop shelves are crowded with such treasures. Our favorite local supermarket even sells what they describe as a “game casserole pack” in the months leading up to and just past Christmas, containing a mix of pheasant, partridge, pigeon, and mallard duck.
What can you do, however, in the months when most game is not available and you really want a poultry experience a bit off the beaten path?
That, my friend, is when you go for the guinea fowl. With its skin a rich, deep, gold and the dark meat of its legs gleaming blue-black beneath, with its high-arched breastbone and meaty wings, the guinea fowl makes ordinary chickens look a little… well, ordinary by comparison.
In fact, this is how I made my first acquaintance with a guinea fowl.
“Sometimes,” I said to Kevin, my jolly white-haired English butcher, “I just want something other than a roast chicken.”
“What you want, my love,” he said immediately, “is a guinea fowl. I’ll have one for you tomorrow.”
What he had in fact were two guinea fowls, planning I suppose to talk some other hungry cook into the second, but I scooped up both. We were expected for a springtime picnic that evening and I felt certain, just looking at the elegant birds, that I had hit pay dirt. Much lower in fat and calories than chicken and infinitely more interesting in flavor, the guinea fowl is pure poultry gold.
Sometimes,I just want something other than a roast chicken.”
What exactly is a guinea fowl, though? It is called a “guinea” because it was first brought to Europe from Guinea in the 16th century by the Portuguese, for whom Guinea was a colony.
Its Latin name “meleagris” stems, however, from a far more romantic origin. Meleager was, in Greek mythology, a warrior who was killed by his mother after he killed her brothers. Women who chose to mourn Meleager were turned into guinea-hens, and their tears form the pearl-shaped creamy markings found on the bird’s gray feathers. (If you’d like to read even more about the etymology of “guinea fowl,” per impossibile, you can do so here.)
Curious before I even cooked the bird, I began to read about my new fowl friend, and found that guinea fowl are among the most beloved birds in the home-poultry-raising world. They are the watchdogs of the henhouse, alerting farmers to all sorts of intruders (coyotes, foxes, dogs). They are terribly easy to care for, independent and free-ranging. They are deadly efficient at eating many of the awful pests that ruin many a home gardener’s life. Their daily diet includes beetles, locusts, spiders, ants, cockroaches, flies, wasps, termites, cutworms, grubs, and snails. Most important for any person lucky enough to raise guinea fowl in the Nutmeg state of Connecticut, they are voracious predators of ticks, carriers of the miserable Lyme disease.
Because the British know how to get the most out of any speciality subject, there are websites in the UK devoted to the guinea fowl in all its breeding, strutting, pest-eating glory. And naturally, within these websites there are Guinea Fowl Holidays on which you can take your family, renting a cozy country cottage in close proximity to any number of the appealing birds.
Perhaps you, dear reader, have a very understanding, supportive partner who will allow you to mail-order 30 tiny guinea fowl “keets” (babies) from a farm in New Vienna, Iowa. I’m not pointing any fingers (well, yes, at my husband, actually).
For reasons known only to himself, he point-blank refuses to let me fill our perfectly good 200-year-old chicken house with an actual chicken or chicken-like bird. A refrigerated grocery case is the closest I will get to the life cycle of a guinea fowl.
Recipes therefore, rather than recreation, quickly leap to mind.
Of course the first thing any right-minded cook wants to do with a whole bird is to roast it, so I did, simply uncovered, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, so that we could discern the flavor without any distractions.
And that was the first revelation.
Chicken can be used (and often is, in our house) as a mere carrier for other ingredients like cheese, prosciutto or sage, since even good English free-range chickens have a very mild flavor, if any at all. Guinea fowl is another matter. Its very essence is golden-brown, both appearance and taste. The skin is fattier than that of chicken, its dark meat darker and richer.
Many guinea fowl recipes call for “barding,” or draping the breast meat with fat such as bacon, to avoid dryness, but I had no such problems; both the breast meat and the leg meat were rich and juicy, so I saw no reason to spoil one of the nice things about the bird–its low fat content.
Any leftover roasted guinea fowl can be combined with very simple ingredients–celery, pinenuts, a few hot chili peppers–for a brilliant cold salad next day.
Where a simple roast fowl is lovely, the next great idea is to fancy it up. What could be more mind-numbingly delicious than placing a bird atop a bed of 30 cloves of garlic, and stems of rosemary, bathing it in white wine and braising it in its own steam? I owe the iconic British chef Delia Smith for this recipe, and divine it is. When the fowl has roasted and rested, the juices may be made into the simplest of gravies, and the creamy garlic spread onto toast, or just bites of the roasted bird.
When a lovely, warm early summer evening presented itself, it was simple to cut out the spine of the guinea fowl (putting it aside for stock) to “spatchcock” the fowl, then barbecue it for about 30 minutes a side at 400F/200C, basting it with the perfect barbecue sauce in the last 15 minutes.
The bones of this humble bird, simmered long and low with onions, celery, garlic, carrots and parsley, make a deep, complex stock that will be perfect for your next batch of creamy mushroom soup.
The United States has been slower than Europe to catch on to the attractions of the guinea fowl, and as with all scarcity, prices are high. If you don’t want to wait until your next trip to London to try guinea fowl, you can take a deep breath and order it online.
How about raising your own, and taking the time to appreciate this gorgeous, flavorsome bird.
What is your experience cooking with guinea fowl? Tell us your story.
Photo credit: Avery Curran
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