10 December 1999


Looking for a dainty alternative to traditional festive fare this Christmas?

A Scottish crofter could have just the answer – with no worry about what

to do with the leftovers. Sue Chapman went in quest of quail

PEOPLE have an image of quail as being very expensive and too small to bother with, says Steve Barnard from his 4ha (10-acre) croft, near Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

"Our biggest job is to persuade the consumer that this is no longer the case. Quail, just like salmon, has become a realistic alternative.

If Steve, his wife Kay and daughter Christine, both of whom help out with the business, are still feeling their way marketing the birds, there is not much they need to learn about rearing them.

Steve, who also rears a small number of Aberdeen-Angus cattle on his land, is a self-confessed bird enthusiast and worked for many years as a gamekeeper on estates in Wales and Lincolnshire before moving to north-east Scotland to start up in business just over a year ago.

&#42 Lots of types

"There are literally dozens of different varieties of domestic and wild quail," Steve explains. "We rear Coturnix which are well established as good laying birds and weigh in at about 6-8oz when dressed ready for cooking."

The Coturnix certainly has a long pedigree, being recognised as the same bird which appears in many ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

With its sandy-coloured, strongly streaked plumage, the little bird looks like a tiny partridge and according to Steve can still be found wild in some areas of Scotland. When the young birds hatch after an incubation period of around 16 days, they are only the size of a bee but they grow very rapidly and are fully reared at approximately six weeks.

"We mix up our own feed," says Steve. "Its chemical-free and includes wheat and maize which give the finished birds a slightly yellow colour – like a corn-fed chicken – and makes them beautifully plump and succulent.

"All you have to do then," adds Kay, "is stuff them with a little butter, or maybe garlic butter, dab some on top and roast them in a medium oven for about 20 minutes. Dont drown them in a complicated sauce or it detracts from the delicate flavour which is quite mild – a little like pheasant but not the strong taste you think of with game."

Cookery writer Philippa Davenport has suggested that quail might make a tasty alternative for Christmas, quick to prepare and consumed at one sitting so theres no danger of being overwhelmed with left-overs.

Steve is also a great fan of quail eggs, be they scrambled or made into an omelette.

"Its not so long ago that country people used to pick them up in the wild as an addition to their diet," says Steve. "Theyre small but about 80% yolk which gives them a lovely creamy texture. They can be served hard-boiled in a salad or as an hors doeuvre but I love them pickled."

The eggshells are remarkably pretty, marbled rather like a plovers egg. When varnished they make attractive decorative features and could be used, for example, in dried flower arrangements.

As yet, most of the quail served in Scotland is imported from England but the Barnards are hoping to change that. A local butcher is selling both the birds and the eggs and Steve and Kay have taken their product to local fairs and farmers markets and been delighted with the response.

"People are actively seeking out good quality, locally produced food," says Steve. "They like to see the birds on display alongside the stall and once theyve tried the meat and the eggs they do come back for more so perhaps were getting the message across. &#42

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