Small of size but big in flavour, quail is served at Benedicts in Norwich by chef-patron Richard Bainbridge. Accompanied by barley risotto, his stuffed, boned and reshaped quail dish puts a whole roast bird on a plate in diner-friendly form. Michael Raffael explains.
Plenty of chefs use quail eggs in their kitchens, but not too many use quails. In their wild state, these birds, which are smaller than a poussin, aren’t native to the UK, and on the continent they are an endangered species. A few poultry farms in northern Provence still rear them for the table.
Norfolk Quail (www.norfolkquail.co.uk), a poultry farm near Fakenham, Norfolk, rears conservation-grade birds. What started as a spin-off from eggs has grown into a business supplying birds to, among others, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, the Black Swan at Oldstead in North Yorkshire, and Benedicts in Norwich, which is owned by chef Richard Bainbridge.
Quail is reared for 10 to 12 weeks and its taste is distinct from chicken without being gamey. That flavour is down to the way the birds are processed. After slaughter by gassing, the quail are not bled as happens with, say, poussins; instead, they are dry-plucked and then waxed to remove any remaining plumage without damaging the skin. The intestines and stomach are removed, but the liver and heart are left inside.
By boning, stuffing and re-forming quail, Bainbridge delivers a whole roast bird on the plate that is easy for the customer to handle.
- The pearl barley for the risotto base is soaked overnight.
- The quail is boned, stuffed and trussed in batch sizes of 12-18 daily.
- The quail is roasted, the risotto finished, the vegetables roasted and the sauce finished to order.
Benedicts serves two courses for £29 and three courses for £37 from its à la carte menu. Each quail costs £3 plus the costs for the stuffing, vegetables and sauce.
To prepare the quail
Cut off the winglets (1). Scrape around the wishbone and pull it out (2).
Turn the quail over and cut along the backbone from stem to stern (3). Dislocate the thigh bones where they slot into the carcass (this will make boning easier) (4). Being careful not to damage the meat or skin, separate it all from the carcass (5). Cut through the wing joint on one side and work back to the leg. Keep the knife point held against the carcass and use your fingers to follow the shape of the bone. Repeat the operation with the other side of the quail.
Separate the skin that is still attached to the keel-bone and free the quail from the carcass. Scrape round the thigh bones to expose them and then cut them off at the joints with the drumsticks. Remove the wings, taking care not to damage the skin. (6).
Put a little stuffing where the thigh bones used to be – about a heaped teaspoon for each one. Form a rough cylinder with about 75g of stuffing and lay it between the two breasts (7).
There are two stages to re-forming the quail: the first is to bring the two halves of the bird together and then stitch them up with kitchen string (8); the second stage is to truss it without using a needle (9).
Thread a trussing needle with about 50cm of string. Tie a knot 15cm from one end that will be large enough to stop the string going through the skin.
Lay the bird skin-side down, with the neck end towards you. Pull the halves together and stitch them up. When you reach the end, you will still have a length of string. Unthread the needle and put the string under the parson’s nose, then take it back and fasten it to the end where the knot is (10).
Turn the quail on its back. Take a second piece of kitchen string (also about 50cm long). Lay the string under the thick end of the breast where the wings were (11). Now bring both ends back up and over the skin between the legs and breast (12).
Cross over the string using the parson’s nose as a guide. Take the two ends under the drumsticks and back over them. Tie the two drumsticks together (13).
To make the barley risotto base
Benedicts will typically work with a batch size based on 1kg of pearl barley from Crisp Malting Group (www.crispmalt.co), which is soaked overnight; the recipe here uses 200g.
Note: the precise amount of stock will vary according to the surface area of the pan and the speed at which the barley absorbs the liquid. It’s better to choose a pan with a large surface area (eg a large sauté pan).
200g pearl barley, soaked overnight
30g rendered lard
120g shredded leek
250ml dry white wine
1 litre (approximate) brown chicken and vegetable stock (see panel above)
Heat the lard and sweat the leeks rapidly, turning them over in the pan until they are soft – about three minutes. Add the soaked barley and mix it in well with the leeks (14). Pour in the wine and boil hard until it evaporates. Pour in all the stock and let the barley boil gently until tender (15). The basic ‘risotto’ will still be moist. Empty it into a container and chill rapidly ahead of service.