Guinea fowl have intrigued me for more than their flavour since I first encountered them en-masse in the L’Aude region of SW France – I could have written ‘en-floc’ (read below for why). We used to rent a house there most summers for four weeks – when holidays were holidays, never ending and guilt free – and Castelnaudary was our nearest town and market. That’s as near perfect as a holiday can be.
Calls to my office were from the cabine in the tiny local Post Office at Revel which was a good 20 minute drive away. Mobile phones that worked across borders hadn’t arrived, bringing with them 24 hour access to us all. You could always shorten a call by saying someone was waiting impatiently to use the same cabine. People in the Sud-Ouest don’t get impatient which is why they have one of the lowest cardiovascular disease rates in all Europe - but I never let on about that to colleagues in London, a million miles away from rural and delightfully backward Lauragais.
The mother of the farmers on who’s land was the 17th century converted granary we rented, Madame Guillemat, was already into and probably past her three score years and ten. She was stick thin and always wore black even though she wasn’t widowed. Her husband, a dear man, suffered shell shock from the vile, largely pointless WW1 and was capable of little about the farm beyond walking the dogs. Madame had two duties – a flock of 3000 or so Guinea fowl and three lines of vines for their rich ruby red vin de table. Her fowl, fed on corn, kitchen scraps and insects, were destined for restaurants in the region and a pitch at the open market in Castelnaudary about once each month.
I learned lots about les pintades (Guinea fowl) from Madame Guillemat. They are very susceptible to cold wind – in autumn and winter the ‘tramontane’ wind comes icy and fast from the north across the rolling hills of the region – without cover, she could lose 2-3 dozen overnight. This sharp wind of the Sud-Ouest was more the enemy than the fox. If they reach puberty – which most for the table don’t – then they are monogamous like magpies. The plummage is an attractive speckled dark grey and white, their head too small and their call best described as perfectly irritating.
Hers were the variety bred for the table - the Helmeted Guinea Fowl. All originate from Africa and some, over time, have become wild again. I’ve even read there are clear references in hieroglyphics to Guinea fowl of Ancient Egypt suggesting they were a table bird 3000 BC – researching that fact I also learned that hieroglyphic texts can be read either from both the left or the right – the clue is the way the animals are facing as they will always be shown looking towards the start of the text – that one’s useful should find yourself in a social situation where conversation flow is staccato, you can now throw in “did you know……………………………?”
We used to shoot a few brace of these strange birds every season in the New Forest (Hampshire). All Guinea fowl have a mildly gamey flavour – from experience I know the wild ones to be no more gamey than those reared for the table by dear Madame Guillemat.
We would order a couple of her birds on our way to market in the morning and pick them up from the farmhouse mid-afternoon. Madame would select out two good, heavy birds, despatch and prepare them – always tied round and round with string like a precious parcel - neck, head and feet still attached, innards wrapped separately in newspaper for the sauce - the body would be still warm. I would have to unravel her presentation before the bird set that way with rigor mortis.
We never ate the birds on day of despatch. Instead, I would then leave them at least 2-3 days before roasting. Too fresh and they’d be tough to the tooth. Our weekly feast of roast Guinea fowl was a treat then as it is now, still evoking memories of my times at Le Pesagado on the Guillemat’s farm – it became a ritual to be invited into the farmhouse to sit in the cool around the huge oil-cloth covered table for a few tiny coloured glasses of chilled Floc Gascon and an inevitable discussion about the state of agriculture due to those over-paid, inexperienced ‘idiots’ who sat in their legions in their air-conditioned offices a world away in Brussels – none of the family had ever visited Paris – Toulouse was the boundary of their universe. The Guillemat’s loved their land, their big John Deere tractors, their dogs, le chasse and their way of life.
A weekly trip into Castelnaudary market – not possible during harvest time - was a highlight where they met up with other farmers from the highly successful Lauragais Cooperative that processed and marketed their produce – from maize and sun flower seeds, to melons and quail. They once took me to the newly commissioned quail abattoir – near identical to a chicken factory, but built by Corgi or Dinky.
The smart preparation of Guinea fowl comes from one of the Sud-Ouest’s master chefs, Michel Guèrard – spatch-cocked and marinated for 48 hours in three citrus – les agrumes - then slow roasted or grilled over wood whilst being basted with the grapefruit, lemon and lime juices.
One English supermarket poultry buyer told me in all seriousness, just a couple of years ago, that whilst he would only source his chickens (hybrids, don’t you know) from the UK, he had to go to France for Guinea fowl as “they can’t be raised over here”. What utter piffle from one who should know better. Another buyer, admittedly about 10 years ago, told me in all seriousness they had none in stock as they were ‘out of season’. More ill-informed rubbish.
Guinea fowl have African origins, like golden pheasants which came originally from China and our table chicken has its roots on the Indian jungle floor and they can fly only briefly so as to reach safety or up to the branches for roosting. Once off the ground pheasants glide as much as the flap their wings – being lazy, flying is their last resort ton escape the hunters’ guns.
I like our Guinea fowl plain roasted – the skin rubbed with olive oil or goose fat (as I tip my cap to the Sud-Ouest’s favourite cooking ‘graisse‘ – and part of the reason for their rude health), with 2-3 crushed cloves of garlic and a some sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary in the cavity, and into a 180C oven for 50-60 minutes depending on weight. Always then a 15 minute rest before carving. All my readers know by now, removing the wishbone before cooking is essential in polite circles.
The pan juices, deglazed with red wine plus the stock achieved from the innards and seasoned to taste, make for a simple farmhouse sauce. The Guillemat family would have theirs fried in portions and served with fat frites from their large home grown potatoes cooked in bright yellow corn oil – sometimes the two brothers who ran the farm would top the plate with two fried eggs a piece – Guinea fowl eggs of course – tomato ketchup or Savora on the side. These men were early Blue Collar Gastronauts.
When we still eat ours using the wooden handled knives from Castelnaudary market back in the 80s, it evokes that satisfaction of continuity in world that moves too fast. I can as good as remember the day I bought them and the lunch that followed.
Last Christmas, for the first time ever, we saw Guinea fowl capons for sale in France – we’d set our hopes on our Chapon de Bresse, so didn’t switch. The richness of the gamey meat that’s been caponised suggests a fine eating bird, albeit a little lighter and smaller than a caponised chicken.