Wild Game at the Winery: In praise of guinea fowl

July 15, 2010

story by Andrew Mariani and Chris Fischer
photos by Lucy Goodheart
This article originally appeared in
 Meatpaper Issue Twelve.

AT SCRIBE WINERY IN SONOMA, CALIFORNIA, vintner Andrew Mariani and farmer/chef Chris Fischer raise guinea fowl for their table. Here, they interview each other in an attempt to explain why they chose the notoriously feisty birds for their new farm. 

Fischer: Why Guinea Fowl?

Mariani: Guineas are more of a wild species than typical poultry like chickens or turkeys. Before we started Scribe, this property was an industrial turkey farm. The birds were artificially inseminated, pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, fattened up, never seeing the light of day. These birds were over-manipulated, and not only is that potentially inhumane, but it also doesn’t taste very good.

I wanted our first foray into raising birds to be the complete opposite of that. There’s something about guineas and the fact that they are less domesticated than chickens that makes them attractive.

Fischer: Exactly. They are beautiful birds, with their elegant white spots and nimble, dexterous ways of moving around. They were originally brought to America on slave ships from Africa, and acclimate quickly to the wild if left to their own habits. On the East Coast, it is very common for flocks of guineas to roam wild, reproducing naturally and eating what is provided for them in the woods.

Mariani: That is why we built them a coop with an elevated perch that was completely enclosed with a large netted area for them to roam naturally for insects in the field. They are skilled flyers, so the netting is necessary to keep them captive, but we still wanted to provide natural space for them. Have you ever hunted or gathered them?

Fischer: I have had to do away with them for our neighbors due to noise issues, which is quite tough, even with a .22. They are very nimble. Actually, their ability to maneuver in difficult settings has been studied by robotics experts for modern warfare purposes. But in our case, we just wanted to keep the peace and have a good product for the dinner table.

Speaking of the dinner table, what other animals do you raise on the Scribe property?

Mariani: From the beginning of this project, I have been motivated by an idea of creating the old California homestead, being self-sustainable, and working in a biodiverse and healthy ecosystem. We now have ducks, chickens, pigs, and two goats, not to mention the sheep that graze our vineyards to keep the fields in check while fertilizing at the same time with their manure. Part of the reason for our food production is to break up the  monoculture of traditional vineyards.

You used to be a chef in New York City, cooking for Mario Batali, and made a conscious decision to leave that world and grow and raise food. Why?

Fischer: I did my time in a big restaurant, working 90-hour weeks, sleeping 4 hours a night and eating and drinking myself into a very bad bikini body. I left that life behind because my family has always grown food and I loved the idea of cooking the food that I also raised. So I moved from an apartment in Manhattan to my grandfather’s tool shed on his farm on Martha’s Vineyard. I now raise, slaughter, and cook as much food as I can.

Recently at Scribe, we slaughtered a batch of birds in a very communal way to use in a meal at a San Francisco restaurant, with about 12 people getting together to help in the process. It was very moving and peaceful. To work side by side with people who may not have had such an experience with the food they will be eating was an important moment for everyone involved — plucking the feathers, removing the innards and cleaning the birds for our meal.

Mariani: I’ve learned from hosting parties that the guests who seem to enjoy themselves the most are the ones who came early to help. I think the more invested you are in the creation of something, the more pleasure you will derive from its goodness. I think one of the beautiful things about growing food is that if you spend the time and energy to raise an animal or vegetable, and make sure you cook it properly and respectfully, when you eat it you savor it fully. Intimately knowing the provenance of the plate leads to a very delicious experience.

When you were a chef in New York, was there ever guinea fowl on the menu?

Guinea hens’ ability to maneuver  in difficult settings has been studied by robotics experts for modern warfare purposes.

Fischer: It was on the menu from day one and is still on the menu today. They serve a boned-out guinea hen leg, marinated in herbs and oil, then slowly grilled with whatever vegetables are in season at the time. The slow rendering of the fat makes for a crispy and moist piece of meat. The guineas are sourced from a purveyor who was distributing them nationwide long before it was trendy to venture away from chicken. They sell guinea hen meat for about $8 a pound.

Mariani: Is the high cost the reason you don’t see guinea hen on a lot of menus or in a lot of supermarkets? They are so delicious.

Fischer: If you think about all the domesticated animals raised in America, 99 percent of them are sheep, pigs, chickens, and cows. It’s not about taste, it’s about convenience and cost. And all those animals are easy to raise. Easy means cheap, and that is the bottom line. If all the food we raised was as labor intensive and expensive as raising guinea hens, we would not be able to do so cost effectively. I guess we will never see them on the scale of chickens or other poultry, but that’s OK. All we can do as guinea hen activists and advocates is spread the word to others and hope it catches on.

ANDREW MARIANI lives and works in Sonoma, California, where he is the owner and vintner of Scribe Winery. He is currently at work restoring the property to its former glory, one vine and brick at a time.

CHRIS FISCHER learned how to cook from his father, who emphasized meals spent together as a family. Chris started cooking professionally in New York City six years ago. He now makes his living cooking, farming, and helping others do the same on Martha’s Vineyard and sometimes elsewhere.

LUCY GOODHEART was born in London and grew up in the flatlands of East Anglia. She photographs for advertising, editorial, and publishing projects as well as fine art. Her objectives lie strongly in the desire to capture the unseen, the overlooked, and the forgotten.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Twelve.

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