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A Growing Taste for Quail

December 26, 1991|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a free - lance writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

Looking for something extra special to serve for a holiday supper? Quail--the diminutive game bird extolled by certain food connoisseurs as the ultimate delicacy--might well fit the bill. Quail eggs, on the other hand, are more commonly pickled, or eaten raw in Japanese sushi.

The consumption of quail in the United States has increased greatly, due to the improved quality of the birds, says Craig Knowlton, director of sales and marketing for Quail International in Greensboro, Ga.

"Quail is to poultry what buffalo is to beef," he says. "Quail has less cholesterol, less fat, and more protein than chicken."

The largest quail farm in the country is in Georgia, not California. Georgia ships upward of 4 million quail a year to California, mostly to Lucky and Safeway, and large ethnic supermarkets.

However, if you have sampled either fresh quail or quail eggs locally, chances are they were from the Golden State Bird Farm in Escondido.

Quail entered Stan and Billie Hyde's life by accident, and on a modest scale. "I kind of fell into it. My wife started it as a hobby, and it just got out of hand," said Stan, the co-owner with Billie of Golden State Bird Farm.

Stan, whose father once ran a large chicken ranch in Oregon, recalls how he purchased a few birds 14 years ago. "I bought a bunch of quail, and I threw the eggs away at first," he recalls.

These days, Stan and Billie sometimes have trouble keeping up with the demand for the miniature, marbleized eggs, which are used in certain morsels of sushi that call for the tiny yolk of a quail egg.

The Hydes' "hobby" grew even more out of hand last year, when they tripled the size of their operation.

Inside the small barn behind the Hydes' house, wire cages stacked a dozen deep shelter about 8,000 birds.

"They're easy to take care of, but you have to know just what to do, and when," Stan says. A good portion of the eggs are hatched inside two incubators the size of refrigerators. Part of Golden State's business consists in delivering dressed quail to markets and restaurants in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas.

The Hydes pack and ship as many as 13,000 quail eggs a week in plastic boxes imported from Japan.

Stan takes care of the feedings, while Billie markets quail and eggs to restaurants and ethnic markets in the county.

"We've been doing this so many years, it's really become a part of us," Billie said.

Because the birds like to live close together, they are known as "covey quail." The docile birds cluster to one side when the farmer reaches inside the cage to catch one.

"They make real good pets," Stan says. "If you take a one-day-old quail and raise it by itself, it'll follow you around like a dog."

As if to prove his words, one escapee sprints across the barn floor. "No need to worry," he says. "They don't stray far." The quail barely flutters as Stan reaches for it and gives it a few strokes before placing it back in one of the cages, where a sea of indignant feathers engulfs the renegade.

The quail's low-grade trill sounds "a little like a cricket's" says Stan. The birds are known as Japanese, Mediterranean, Coturnix, or Pharaoh quail, "the same ones that are mentioned in the Bible as mana from heaven," says Stan.

Quail are considered a delicacy by non-humans too. Baby quail are prized by falconers who feed them to their birds of prey. And the Hydes must maintain a constant vigil against stray cats who attempt to break into the cages.

In the spring, Golden State supplies area grade schools with quail chicks for classroom demonstrations.

Golden State Bird Farm, 908 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido, 92025; 741-8581. One pint pickled quail eggs (about 30 eggs) $5. Ten-pack fresh quail eggs, 75 cents to $1 depending on availability. Dressed quail available for $2 apiece with two days' advance notice.

Quail International, 1940 Highway 15 South, Greensboro, Ga., 30642; (800) 843-3204. Call for list of local distributors.

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