This is one of those posts where I ramble and waffle on quite a lot. If you think you might be interested in the recipe, you can skip the following paragraphs and go straight to where photos of the recipe begin.
Last Saturday there was a full moon … a big, fat, round, huge sphere and orb of a moon called a Hunter’s moon. And the word ‘hunter’ in Italian, “cacciatore”, immediately recalls quails to mind for me. Well, thrushes too. And ‘beccacce’, woodcock. And the odd pheasant. I come from an Italian family of men who liked to go out hunting, indeed had a passion for “andare a caccia” – my grandfather Riccardo who unfortunately died before I was born, his sons Felice and Toto, and Felice’s son Riccardo. Even my brother-in-law Enrico is a cacciatore.
When my Swedish father died and I was less than one year of age, my mother decided to return to Italy from Sweden, and what ended up happening was that my widowed grandmother and her son Toto (who is only nine years older than I am), and my widowed mother and myself all lived together in the same flat in Frascati while I was growing up. And this is the flat that I have always called ‘home’ and am still in living in now!
By the time I was five, my mother married again to a Scotsman who lived in West Pakistan and I learnt to speak English there, in Karachi. Stewart, my stepfather, was in the pharmaceutical business and work was to take him and his family (I have two younger sisters) to Iran, East Pakistan (which then became Bangladesh), the Lebanon, India, and Cyprus and back to the Indian Subcontinent. At age thirteen, I was sent to boarding school in England and spent six years there completing my education. This peripatetic existence is the fabric of my psychology, I am sure of that … and there is an expression for people like me now, “third culture kids”. Only a few days ago, I went to the Swedish Embassy in Rome to renew my passport and for the umpteenth time (think six decades) had to undergo the excruciating embarrassment of owning up to the fact that er, uh, ahem, I actually do not speak Swedish. Not much, anyway. It is not something that I am proud of and will have to make good on a promise I made to myself years ago to reach at least a reasonable conversational level.
Anyway, let’s get back to shooting and such. During the course of my early childhood, I have blurred memories of my grandmother sitting in the kitchen of our apartment and painstakingly plucking away at the feathers of the tiniest birds imaginable (thrushes amongst these). I also remember, later on, when I was older, my Uncle Toto fabricating cartridges for his gun … the gunshot, the powder, the lead (was it lead?) stopper. He had all the stuff laid out on the kitchen table, all the various ‘ingredients’ carefully measured and then stuffed into the cartridge. Who knows? I probably even helped him on occasion. And then, when I was old enough to realise the chronological onus of hunting (getting up at around 3 a.m.), I thought he and my other uncle Felice and other hunting cronies were nuts. The birds they brought home almost looked like toys, they were that small. But my grandmother and mother always ooohed and aaahed, and so I just took it for granted I suppose. Having a gun in the house. My stepfather had an army background and was a crack shot apparently. And on those occasions when we spent New Year’s in Italy, I have a pretty clear memory of my Uncle and Stewart firing off a few shots after midnight. They fired in turns, aiming the gun high up into the sky. And .. yes .. no one was ever hurt, not ever. But imagine doing that now, eh! I shudder just to think about it and yet it seemed harmless enough, and fun, at the time.
Stewart adored quails … and indeed, it was the dish that my grandmother would always make for him upon his return from abroad, and when the season was sound, they were usually accompanied by pan fried porcini mushrooms. He would start out with the mandatory knife and fork and end up using his fingers to pick away at those little birds until he cleaned the bones of any flesh, taking his time, enjoying every morsel. I seem to remember my grandmother stuffing them with sausage meat and roasting them in the oven. I instead cannot lay any claim to quailmanship. Not really my thing. I have to thank my friend Liz Macri for reintroducing this fowl on our dining table. She invited us to dinner just over a year ago and served them and we all thoroughly enjoyed them, and their ‘simplicity’. She roasted them in the oven, with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper, and that was it.
When I espied quails at the butcher’s the day after the Hunter’s moon… I smiled inwardly, thinking about my Nonna and Stewart, and bought four for me and my husband’s supper that night. I happened to have a gaudy persimmon and plopped it into the roasting pan for a bit of colour and for a sweeter ‘take’ on the recipe. I dotted a few small tomatoes and voilà ! Slice the persimmon and serve the quail with paprika roasted cauliflower. Not a bad way of coming to terms with Autumn.
Here are the dinky quails. The butcher hadn’t got rid of all the feathers and I had to do a bit of plucking myself, not the easiest of things and I had to resort to kitchen scissors in the end.
I wrapped some garlic inside a small bayleaf.
And then stuffed the garlic and leaf into the bird’s cavity.
I sprinkled plenty of salt over the birds and coated them, and more bayleaves, with olive oil. I planced the persimmon in the middle of the oven pan. I did not use pepper because I think that it is best to add pepper freshly, just before eating, otherwise its fragrance tends to get lost.
I then added some slices of ‘guanciale’ (pork jowl – pancetta would do too) over the opening to the birds’ cavities, a bit like an apron. These birds have hardly any fat on them and it was an extra precaution as to their maintaining juiciness during the process of cooking. I added the small tomatoes just for scenic effect. Now that I think about it, once the birds were cooked I could have dotted the plate with pomegranate.
I roasted them in the oven at 200°C for about an hour and then turned them over for another 15 minutes.
I sliced the persimmon and served the quail with roasted cauliflower. I had seasoned the cauliflower with olive oil, salt and paprika.
This looks like a mess, doesn’t it. The photo below is a bit better. Anyway, looks aside, it tasted really nice. Not at all aggressive but full of flavour. Roasted persimmon is very discreet that way. The bayleaf is fresh.