A tastier alternative to chicken and the base for extraordinary stock
“It’s an ugly looking thing, really,” says Lee of Wyndham House Poultry. “Definitely weird looking. They’ve got big red beaks, blue cheeks and a big black body.” Described like this, the guinea fowl sounds a little terrifying—a conclusion not exactly dispelled by Italian chef Ursula Ferrigno’s description of its meat. “They have yellow fat and skin, dark, scaly legs and darker breast meat than you’d get with a chicken,” she explains. But looks aren’t everything. “They are delicious—and if you have a guinea fowl carcass, raw or cooked, you should count yourself very lucky.”
We Brits might not be that au fait with the guinea fowl, but when it comes to our friends on the continent, this farm-reared, gamey flavoured bird is highly regarded as a tastier alternative to roast chicken or goose. “If I was to choose my last supper, it would have to contain guinea fowl. I love it that much,” Ursula laughs.
“We eat it in autumn and winter traditionally, cooked with red grapes or cherries. The colour combination is beautiful, and the juices prevent the meat from drying out so much.” That is one risk with guinea fowl, says Ursula: it can get quite dry in cooking. “I recommend putting buttered muslin on the breast, or pancetta to keep the moisture in.” She urges people not to be put off by the bird’s size and appearance: very good things can come in small, ugly packages. “I love it. It has so many dimensions of flavour—and it makes the most divine broth, too.”
That’s where those carcasses come in. Combined with “the holy grail” of celery, carrots and onion, they produce “the most wonderfully haunting flavour”, Ursula enthuses. “The vegetables work in harmony with the bones of the bird. I add other things—basil, peppercorns, cloves and so on—according to the time of year and how I feel.” Winter calls for garlic, while basil leaves add great freshness. “Just make sure you use fresh, not dried. It’s the oil in the leaves that adds flavour.” The resulting broth makes a base for a delicious white lasagne, soups and stews, gravies and sauces. “It has this old fashioned flavour that you just can’t get from chicken. I really recommend it,” Ursula says.
Though it is farm reared, the free range lifestyle and natural, grain-based diet of the fowl sourced by Lee for Borough Market makes for a leaner meat, better texture and—he argues—richer taste than other birds. “They come from France. We used to get them from Norfolk, but we can’t anymore.” Guinea fowl just isn’t popular here. In part, this is a size issue—one chicken can feed a family; you’d probably need two guinea fowl—but it is also due to the simple lack of awareness of what it is, how to treat it, and how it tastes.
“Do I need to hang it, will it contain shot, will it work in harmony with the rest of the meal?” Ursula lists. “These are all things that put people off, but really you just treat it like a chicken.” It doesn’t need hanging, and it won’t contain shot, because it’s not a game bird. “It’s like entry-level pheasant,” says Lee. If you like guinea fowl, you might like pheasant. If you like pheasant, you could move onto partridge or grouse. “It holds you by the hand if you’re interested in getting into game birds.”
You’ll need to lower the temperature of your oven—180C rather than 200C Ursula suggests—but beyond that it’s open to experimentation. “At this time of year, I like to joint it and pair it with chestnuts,” she says, “but it loves grapes, herbs, all sorts of fruits”—which, again, she varies according to the season. Guinea fowl are at their best at this time of year, but because they’re farm reared they are available pretty much all year round.