Quails are cute little round, feathered bundles whose sound is more a squeak than a chirrup. Their meat is less sought after than their eggs, so quails sold for cooking are the male by-product of a lucrative egg business. Animals, like humans, are born roughly 50:50 male to female. That’s Nature’s way of keeping balance, but modern industrial farming mostly misses that point.
Quail and their eggs have rather fallen from favour in the UK – more’s the pity for everyone living beyond easy reach of Dover and the escape to the fertile shopping of Boulogne and abouts. To me they are like a poor man’s gull’s egg and none the worse for that, soft boiled and served with celery salt and a dab of mayonnaise. I draw the line at poaching them for salads – “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” said Shirley Conran so rightly back when.
I do admit to frying blackbirds’ eggs in a tiny frying pan heated by a large methylated spirit lozenge in my sister’s play house. My friends from the village had to eat them as a bond of friendship. We were very young and it was North Wales. They stayed on the menu for a good couple of Springs as I recall.
My first taste of quail stays with me more than those blackbird eggs - it was a roadside inn outside Civitavecchia. We were served our quaglia, four a piece and they were both tiny and tasty – almost certainly wild and shot in the surrounding fields and woods rather than farmed. They were split – spatchcocked – and quick roasted alla brace meaning over a wooden brazier where most of the day’s meat and vegetables were cooked by two young boys in their mid-teens – most likely sons of the lady who ran the place and ruled the kitchen, appearing regularly to shout, like they do in the south, that a certain table’s anti-pasti or pasta was ready.
Our quail were served straight from the brazier - four quail, heads and all, on a white plate with a quarter of lemon from the tree beside the brazier. During grilling, they used a rosemary twig dipped in olive oil to baste them and keep them juicy. That was it. We mostly ate them with our fingers and even in such a country inn, finger bowls were provided without request, rather than those vile lemon infused wipes in a sachet which have become accepted in more recent times – worse still, they are even in smart restaurants.
Another time, again a chance lunch, outside Mélun, we were to be served les cailles as a cold hors d’oeuvre, boned and stuffed with fresh foie gras with the sweetest of white grapes. Again, head still in place and elegantly held under the wing – the presentation I still stay with these years later.
Quail from the egg farms are larger birds and deceptively filling. Even two can be too much for most people, although our sons usually manage two and one more a piece.
The simpler the presentation and the fresher the quail makes for a splendid dish. Sometimes I will spatchcock the birds and leave them marinate for 24 hours in olive oil, lemon juice and Italian chilli flakes. Otherwise a quick roast at around 180C – 15 minutes is plenty time.
I allow 5 or so minutes longer on the rotissèrie – these birds I simply stuffed with a few amazingly aromatic thyme sprigs and brushed them with lemon and olive oil. We ate them with masses of fresh spaetzle gently re-heated for a few minutes in salted Normandy butter, then finished with tiny cèpes (from the jar – not picked by me more’s the pity), a ladle of richly reduced chicken stock and crême fraiche.
The spaetzle was a new find in Leclerc (Boulogne Outreau don’t you know!), from the old German/Alsace firm of Stoeffler. Better than one can make at home because they make it daily and we make it once a year if that.
I learnt early on in France to leave to the experts what the experts do best. We should all make fresh pasta, foie gras, tartes aux fruits, bread and their like so as to master the technique – then it’s best to source them from the best local supplier who will be a master at their trade – and if not, walk on by.
The etiquette for the larger farmed quail is the use your knife and fork to remove the breast meat and then fingers for the tiny legs and thighs and other morsels from the carcase - passing the neck and head to the diner who relishes such a delicacy – in our family, that’s me. If you’re fortunate enough to find fresh quail in the UK, be sure some spoilsport will have removed the head. We’ve all heard of headless chickens, but there I draw the line.
Try it, but maybe not in public or seated with the squeamish. There again, it’s mostly best not to dine with the squeamish anyway and they’re unlikely to sign up to Blue Collar Gastronomy.