They've been one of the great successes of the last few years, turning up on the tables of all the smart restaurants, and appearing in the supermarkets. Even Tesco and ASDA sell them, at the not very crippling price of pounds 1 per dozen (they cost two or three times as much a few years ago). They are easy to cook and can be served fried, poached, lightly boiled or hardboiled.
I first tasted quails' eggs at a promotion for British food at London's Cafe Royal many years ago. Ignorant of matters gastronomic, I had been sent to talk to as many of the celebrities present as possible - such as Nubar Gulbenkian, gourmet and millionaire, and the ungastronomic Canad- ian newspaper tycoon Roy Thomson.
The Canadian was telling me that his favourite dish was spaghetti with meatballs when a waiter presented us with a tray of unshelled quails' eggs. "How do you eat them?" inquired the magnate, holding one of the eggs up to his pebble glasses for closer scrutiny.
I didn't know. We looked at the waiter for guidance. "I've no idea," he said, retreating rapidly. Since we had a glass in one hand and promotional material in the other, we assumed they must be ready to eat. We assumed wrong, the truth dawning on us as we crunched through our eggs, the shells splintering and catching between our teeth.
Mr T made off hurriedly, probably to deposit the contents of his mouth into the nearest aspidistra. Later, when I saw Nubar Gulbenkian leaving I asked him to answer a gastronomic question. "Quails' eggs. Do you eat them with the shells on or not?" The Monocled One did not hesitate: "Whichever you prefer," he said. "It's a matter of taste. It's the same with ice- cream, you can eat it with the tub or without."
We weren't to see another quail's egg until a young Michel Bourdin, formerly sous-chef at the mighty Maxim's in Paris, arrived to take over the kitchens of the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. He brought with him his signature dish: soft-boiled quails' eggs in puff pastry.
Now the eggs are no longer a rarity nor are they particularly exclusive. We can be sure that Tony Blair, if not John Major, eats them. They are on the menu at an Islington restaurant he favours - Frederick's - served hardboiled as an appetiser, in a saucer of Maldon salt.
The eggs are presented with their pretty shells lightly cracked and ready for you to peel. (The manager says there are first-timers who don't realise they must be peeled before eating - but he has also seen guests eating up the prickly outside leaves of a globe artichoke, leaving the edible, tender hearts on the plate untouched.)
Quail farmers are currently on a roll, too (which is more than can be said for ostrich farmers), and are able to sell every egg they hatch. Those that aren't sold fresh are snapped up by delicatessens to be smoked or pickled. Quail are lovely birds to keep, says Philip Lee-Woolf, head of one of the leading producers, Clarence Court, in Cheltenham. "They have a lovely temperament. The birds have always been around in the wild and, as a source of food, they predate the chicken. Early Greek texts refer to them."
Quails are even mentioned in the Bible, he points out. "Joseph turns up with some. The quail are migratory birds but, it's funny, they don't know how to land. They just crash down at your feet like a cauliflower. It's no wonder that Joseph thought they were gifts from God."
The Japanese have been farming quails for their eggs for more than 500 years, he says. They often eat them raw, on top of a blob of cooked rice. "And in Thailand, children take a packet of quails' eggs to eat raw on the way to school for breakfast."
Mr Lee-Woolf has 25,000 birds. They are prolific egg producers, laying more than 300 a year over one to two years. Unusually, the pretty blue and black patterns on the eggs are designs unique to each bird, like fingerprints.
Quails have minuscule appetites. Given that these tiny birds produce eggs one-tenth of their bodyweight, and start laying at five to six weeks, Mr Lee-Woolf considers them to be an excellent return on his investment. In six years since jacking in his former profession (producing hand-made Windsor chairs), he has seen the business take off. His double-yolked quails' eggs are sold at Partridge's in London's Sloane Street.
As well as fresh eggs, he pickles 3,000 dozen a week in tarragon vinegar, raspberry vinegar or Worcester sauce. "I had one order from Japan for 35,000 pickled eggs, a case of sending coals to Newcastle, since our birds are Japanese quail." He also sells a lot of cold-smoked eggs (60 degrees for 12 hours) to delicatessens. They make a delicious snack with cheese.
One of the most ingenious recipes for quails' eggs is to serve them as Scotch eggs in a sausage-meat mixture. However, this version, using cheese, seems much more appealing. It was given to me by Sophie Grigson (whose new Channel 4 series, Taste of the Times, starts soon). Allow two eggs per person and serve as a first course.
8 hard-boiled quails' eggs, shelled
225g/8oz farmhouse Cheddar, grated
1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tarragon, chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped
salt and pepper
2 hens' eggs, lightly beaten
soft, fine white breadcrumbs
oil for deep-frying
Make a mouldable dough by mixing one-third of the beaten hens' eggs, cheese, herbs, spring onions, salt and pepper. Divide into eight, flatten each piece, and place a quail's egg in the centre, moulding it into a ball. Dip each egg in the remaining beaten egg and breadcrumbs. Leave to set for an hour in the fridge if possible. Heat a pan of oil to 360F (185C) and deep-fry for a few minutes till golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper. !
COOKING QUAILS' EGGS
Hard-Boiled Cover the eggs with cold water and bring them to boil. When boiling, simmer for one minute only. Then drop into cold water and shell immediately. Serve on toothpicks with savoury dips. Or use in miniature salads. At Claridge's, they halve them, remove the yolks, and use them as recept-acles for blobs of caviar.
Soft-Boiled Put straight into boiling water, cook for one-and- a-half minutes, then immediately dash them into a bowl of iced water to arrest the cooking. To shell them, lightly roll them with the heel of your hand to crack the shell and pull off. Then, using forefinger and thumbnail nip the tough transparent membrane that covers it and pull away. They make a tasty first course, in salads or, for example, served with asparagus tips and a thin slice of air-dried ham.
More ambitiously, you can bury soft-boiled eggs in an aspic gelee if you have the patience. As a short-cut, use a tin of jellied consomme warmed through with a little brandy or dry sherry. Put the eggs on slices of cuc-umber in ramekins, cover with the consomme and chill. Serve with piped mayonnaise and chopped fresh parsley.
Poached With a sharp knife slice off the rounded end of the egg, and empty it into a bowl with a little wine vinegar in it (to firm up the whites). Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then transfer to simmering water. Remove them carefully with a slotted spoon when the white has set.
Fried Fry gently in a pan in a little melted butter. Serve them with sauteed chicken livers and creamed spinach on toast. Or put them on little rounds of toast, fried bread, or white or brown bread and butter with a morsel of smoked fish.
Souffles When putting a savoury souffle mixture into either moulds or ramekins, bury a shelled quail's egg in the centre for added texture.
Sponge Cakes Given a surplus of quails' eggs, Mrs Lee-Woolf recommends using them for sponge cakes. She says that they give a more refined result than hens' eggs. Where the recipe indicates one large hen's egg use three or four quails' eggs. Or follow her rule of thumb. Weigh the shelled quails' eggs, adding to them equal weights of margarine, caster sugar and self- raising flour. Mix the ingredients well and cook in two halves in buttered trays in the centre of a pre-heated moderate oven 375F/190C/Gas 5 till done (around 30 minutes).
WHY EASTER EGGS AND WHY EASTER BUNNIES?
Margaret Visser, the Canadian social historian, explains in an essay in her new book The Way We Are (just published in paperback by Penguin, pounds 7.99), that eggs are symbols of birth and rebirth and that Eostre - from which Easter is derived - was the Angles' goddess of dawn.
The Easter bunny, however, is a much more modern, American invention, emerging in the Thirties. For the previous 3,000 years it was the hare, not the rabbit, which was the subject of mythology. Hares were thought to sleep with their eyes open, to represent the face of the Man in the Moon, and were a symbol of "the indomitable power of life, forever returning from wanting and dying."
Not a lot of people know that the hare also lends its name to a European country. When the Phoenicians discovered the Iberian peninsula in 1100 BC, they found it over-run with rabbits. Having never seen rabbits before, they assumed they were hares, and named the country Land of Hares, the Phoenician word being Ishephanim. The Romans, next to settle, adopted the name pronouncing the word Hispania. Which it remains to this day, as in Espana, Espagne, Spain.Reuse content