Food & Drink: Tale of the little speckled hen: Pheasant is pleasant, chicken is tasty, but in between there is guinea fowl, which has its own special flavour

A ZIMBABWEAN friend told me recently that he really could not go along with my enthusiasm for guinea fowl. Back home, guinea fowl was such a common, everyday meat that it was considered vastly inferior to chicken. He had never got used to the European inversion of ranking.

For me, however, it remains one of the finest of domesticated fowl, with a flavour lying somewhere between that of chicken and pheasant. When I was a child, it was a great rarity, a treat that came only with our annual trips to France, where it was more widely reared and greatly appreciated.

The situation hasn't changed much, except that guinea fowl is gradually making itself a small niche in this country, being sold by good poulterers and in a few larger supermarkets.

These pretty, speckled, black-and-white birds are native to the Guinea coast of west Africa - hence their name. A few months ago, we visited a farm in north-west France where they were rearing Label Rouge guinea fowl. Raised on a strictly controlled grain-heavy diet, with room enough to run around in, and time to mature slowly, these are the creme de la creme of commercially produced guinea fowl, carefully tended to produce the finest flavour.

When it comes to cooking, the first thing to note is that guinea fowl are smaller and more meagrely fleshed than chicken. One plump bird is just about enough to feed four at a pinch (accompanied by plenty of vegetables), as long as you are not serving rapacious meat-eaters. If you are, or if you are determined to have enough left-over meat for the next day's sandwiches, then you had better double up and cook two of them.

Although they can be cooked in any way that you might use for chicken or pheasant (and indeed, vice versa), the flesh has a tendency to be dry.

If roasting, make sure that the breast is well protected from the heat - larded with thin strips of pork fat, or at least covered with rashers of streaky bacon - and frequently basted as it cooks.

Grilled guinea fowl should always be thoroughly marinated, and again basted with the marinade as it sizzles under the heat.

As a rule, though, I usually opt for pot-roasting, casseroling or poaching guinea fowl, which are by far the best ways to keep it moist.

Pot-roast guinea fowl with onions and thyme

Terrifically easy and terrifically good. The lengthily cooked onions melt to a soft sweetness, absorbing the flavours of the guinea fowl and thyme. I prefer the homelier version, but if you are after something a little more fancy, you can enrich the dish with a generous slug of cream just before serving.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 guinea fowl

1 1/2 oz (45g) butter

1tbs sunflower oil

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs of parsley

2 sprigs of thyme

2lb (900g) onions, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves

salt and pepper

Preparation: Brown the guinea fowl all over in the butter and the oil over a brisk heat. Tie the bay leaf, parsley and sprigs of thyme together with string to make a bouquet garni. Melt the remaining butter in a heat-proof casserole. Add the onions, and stir briefly. Cover and cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes until beginning to soften. Bury the bouquet garni among them, then sit the guinea fowl, breast-side down, on top, and season with salt and pepper.

Cover the casserole tightly and cook over a low-moderate heat for 30 minutes. Turn the guinea fowl right way up, sprinkle with thyme leaves and continue cooking, still tightly covered, for another 20 minutes or so, until guinea fowl is cooked through and onions are meltingly tender.

Remove the bouquet garni and serve.

For a richer version, remove the guinea fowl and keep warm once cooked. Stir 1/4 pint double cream into the onions, and return to the heat to bubble for a few minutes until reduced to a thick sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Poached guinea fowl with basil & tomato vinaigrette

If you want to serve guinea fowl cold for a summer lunch, then I would suggest that you poach it, letting it cool in its poaching liquid so that the flesh stays perfectly juicy. Of course, poached guinea fowl can also be served hot. Either way, this scented basil and tomato vinaigrette makes a fine partner. Save the richly flavoured cooking liquid to make soup.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients: 1 guinea fowl

Either 1 pint chicken or vegetable stock or 1 generous glass white wine

bouquet garni

1 onion, quartered

1 carrot, thickly sliced

6 peppercorns

Vinaigrette

1oz (30g) basil leaves, roughly torn up

1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped

1tbs lemon juice

5tbs olive oil

12oz (340g) tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and finely diced

pinch or two of sugar

salt and pepper

Preparation: Put the guinea fowl into a close-fitting heat- proof casserole or saucepan with all the ingredients except those for the vinaigrette. Add water, if necessary, to come about two-thirds of the way up the bird. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for about 1-1 1/4 hours until the guinea fowl is very tender.

To serve hot, lift out the guinea fowl, quickly remove skin, and carve at table. To serve cold, draw the pan off the heat and leave bird to cool in the cooking liquid. Lift out, drain, skin and cut into pieces.

Vinaigrette: Put all ingredients except tomatoes into the processor and whiz until smooth. Stir in the tomatoes, then taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with the hot or cold guinea fowl.

Mexico meets France pintade au vinaigre

This recipe is an amalgam of two vinegar-heavy recipes, one from France, the other from Mexico, and both usually made with chicken rather than guinea fowl. Slow cooking mutes the insistent tartness of the vinegar, leaving just a welcome edge. The mild gaminess of guinea fowl takes particularly well to this treatment.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 guinea fowl cut into 8 pieces

1-2tbs sunflower oil

4 shallots, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3fl oz (85 ml) red wine vinegar

1/2 pint (290 ml) chicken stock

3/4 tsp cumin seeds, bruised

generous pinch ground cloves

1tsp dried oregano

1 green chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced

2tbs chopped fresh coriander

salt and pepper

Preparation: Brown the guinea fowl (or chicken) in the oil over a brisk heat in a wide frying pan in two batches. Pour out excess oil. Spread out the shallots and garlic in the pan and snuggle the guinea fowl over them in a single tight layer. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the coriander. Bring up to the boil, then cover and cook over a gentle heat for about 40 minutes until guinea fowl is very tender, stirring once or twice.

Lift out the guinea fowl pieces and keep warm. Boil down the juices in the pan until reduced by half. Taste and adjust seasoning, then pour over the guinea fowl and serve, sprinkled with the coriander.

Guinea fowl cooked with green peppercorns

This takes me straight back to my childhood and to France. My mother cut this recipe - originally for duck - from the local paper and, made with guinea fowl, it quickly became a family favourite.

Use green peppercorns preserved in brine rather then freeze-dried ones.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients: 1 guinea fowl

1 1/4 lb ( 3/4 kg) tiny, whole onions, skinned

2oz (55g) butter

1tbs sunflower oil

1 rounded tbs green peppercorns with their juice

1 1/2 tbs each brandy and

Benedictine, or 3tbs brandy

8fl oz ( 1/4 litre) chicken stock

salt

Preparation: Brown the guinea fowl and onions in the butter and oil, then transfer them to a deep, flame-proof casserole. Add peppercorns, alcohol and 3 or 4 tablespoons of stock. Sprinkle the onions with a little salt. Cover and cook gently until the bird is done (about 45-60 minutes), turning it over occasionally, and basting it with a little more stock - but keep the liquid level low.

Remove and carve bird, arranging it on a hot shallow serving dish with the onions. Season with salt. Skim the fat from the pan juices, taste and adjust seasoning. Add a little more stock, but only enough to lighten - the sauce should not be copious. Pour over the bird and serve.

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