Trend-O-Meter Says: Guinea Hen Takes Flight

"Like chicken with taste" is the way Rheal Cayer of specialty poultry supplier Grimauld Farms describes guinea fowl, a game bird native to Africa we're seeing with increasing frequency on restaurant menus. In San Francisco, we've munched guinea hen "hot pockets" (turnovers) at Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara's Sweet Woodruff. Across the bay in Oakland, we loved a recent special of guinea hen in spicy Thai red curry at James Syhabout's Hawker Fare. Also in Oakland, Oliveto chef Jonah Rhodehamel was offering a guinea hen special in March, a breast stuffed with the bird's leg, dried cherries, and sage sausage, roasted in its own skin and served with a brandy and duck liver sauce. Oliveto's guinea hens, by the way, were from a flock the restaurant received after the birds did some insect-control work at a Napa winery.

Guinea fowl are famous insect-munchers, and handy to have around a farm, Cayer notes. "Farmers who have cattle will get guineas to go after bugs in the feed."

Unlike chickens, guinea fowl can fly, which makes them unsuitable as backyard birds. But that ability to go mobile makes them interesting to eat, since exercise gives their meat flavor and color. The breast of a guinea hen (male guinea fowl are almost indistinguishable from females, so "hen" refers to both sexes) is pinkish, the leg meat bluish. Both have a stronger, gamier flavor than chicken.

It's pricier than chicken, too. A guinea hen tops out at about 3 pounds, half the size of a full-grown chicken. And guinea fowl grow relatively slowly—compared to a chicken, it takes about twice as long to raise a guinea hen to optimal size, which explains why it costs more. Maybe that's why, until recently, guinea hens haven't been terribly popular in the U.S.

Or maybe it's the name. In France, where guinea hen is a traditional Sunday roast, it's called pintade; in Italy, faraona. But some Americans tend to think of guinea pigs when they see the name. That mental association with rodents just might keep guinea hen from ever being a beloved supermarket bird. Chefs, however, have already been smitten by the guinea.

Image source: Flickr member Guinea Fowl Flock under Creative Commons

Former CHOW contributor Joyce Slaton is an editor and writer in San Francisco. She takes her tea with sugar and milk and will sew you an apron if you ask nicely. Follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.