he name guinea hen, or guinea fowl, correctly identifies this bird’s West African origins. This small and hardy bird is a relative of the chicken and partridge, but has a much darker meat than either. The bird’s name has always been confusing, since the terms “guinea fowl” and “guinea hen” are used interchangeably, and refer to either female or male birds of the species. In plumage the sexes are indistinguishable, but the males are larger.
Guinea hens are easily recognizable by the distinct white dotted pattern of their pearly gray plumage, as well as their bald, vulture-like head. Guinea hens are similar in size to chickens and pheasants. They have a distinctive screech for a voice, sometimes described as a rusty windmill.
In early Rome and Greece, the birds were imported and served as a great favorite of the nobles. When the Roman Empire collapsed, however, the bird’s popularity vanished along with it. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the Portuguese, who by then had conquered Guinea, introduced pintada to France. The Portuguese name, meaning painted or spotted bird, became pintade in French. In France, guinea hen is so often eaten that it is referred to as the “Sunday bird.” In Germany they are known as perlhuh, and faraona in Italy. In Europe, annual consumption of guinea hens is about 100 million birds. In the New World, guinea hens first appeared in Haiti. It’s believed that they were transported alive, in cages, on board ships carrying African slaves. But in the United States, we have yet to develop the robust appetite that Europe has for this fantastic bird.
Although guinea hens are found on farms, they are independent and unsocial and have never truly been domesticated. They like to perch on the highest branches of the tallest trees. If they sense that the grain being offered is a lure or trap, they go off and forage for themselves. Put them in cages and try to mate them, and they won’t lay eggs. Leave them in the open, and they bury their eggs where it’s difficult to find them. They are undaunted by larger birds, and have no problem bossing turkeys around. Truly, these birds have big attitudes.
Because these birds have never been totally domesticated, their flesh is darker and more flavorful or gamey tasting, like a pheasant’s. Unlike a pheasant’s, the guinea hen’s legs do not have tough tendons, so they are more readily used. A relative of the chicken and partridge, the guinea hen’s lean and tender dark meat has less fat than chicken and boasts a pleasant, slightly gamey flavor that is similar to pheasant in taste. Guinea hens have 50 percent less fat than chicken, and a 50-50 ratio of meat to bone. Because the bird is lean, the flesh can become dry and stringy, so many recipes call for moist cooking methods. If you roast a guinea hen, it should be generously covered with fat, such as bacon, duck fat, or butter, and slowly roasted. Additionally, you can cook the parts of the bird separately: braise the breast, and roast, braise, or confit the legs.
D’Artagnan’s guinea hens are humanely raised from the highest grade of French breeding stock to ensure a top quality bird. Their diet consists of corn, soy and wheat alfalfa, with no antibiotics or hormones ever used. Air-chilling helps preserve the meat’s texture and flavor and because the skin is not water-logged, it cooks up nice and crispy.