I first ran into guinea fowl in South America, little balls of feathers covered with Seurat-like pointillage. Later, in Burkina Faso, I’d see them darting like roadrunners here and there along the sides of the road.
Numida meleagris, the helmeted guinea fowl, speak in rather harsh-sounding voices and prefer lots of company. A cousin to the more widely known pheasant, the guinea fowl originated in West Africa and boast rather striking markings; their pearl-dotted grayish-black feathers and general make-up resemble that of a harlequin, actually! (Somewhat, anyway, if you squint, are very tired, or have imbibed more than your share of palm wine or Scotch whisky.)
Weighing only around 3-and-a-half pounds, guinea fowl frankly look larger than they actually are. The largest of three varieties, the vulturine guinea fowl, Acryllium vulturinum, grow to 24 inches. Eggshells appear in archeological sites in Senegal, at Cubalel and Siouré, suggesting domestication there. While the guinea fowl became a regular in the corral in West Africa, they still elude domestication for the most part in the rest of Africa. A medieval Arab author, Ibn Sa’id, mentioned guinea fowl in Jaja, or Borno, according to Lewicki. And Darwin thought that the domesticated chicken stemmed from guinea fowl.
Known to the ancient Romans and Greeks, guinea fowl tend to be swift of foot and usually escape predators by running rather than flying. With the fall of the Roman empire, guinea fowl disappeared in Europe, only to be brought back by the Portuguese after their initial voyages of exploration.
Called various names, including possibly galleances, by some 18th -century writers, guinea fowl reflected the naming practices of the day: “guinea” first signified something “foreign” but was then adapted to mean “African,” probably because of the association with the area of Africa called “Guinea.” The birds roosted in the riggings of ships and proved to be legendary. Pintade, African pheasant, faraona, a regular litany, those names.
A British writer, Harry Hamilton Johnston, told a strange tale of guinea fowl in British Central Africa (1898):
The young guinea fowl not only take very rapidly to domestication, but with a little personal attention will become extremely attached to their owners—ridiculously attached I might say—in such a manner as is never exhibited by the domestic fowl. One of these birds at Zomba used to be called the ” Sergeant.” It was the most extraordinarily tame creature that I have ever known amongst Gallinaceous birds, who as a rule though easily domesticated evince very little affection. But this guinea fowl would not only go for long walks with us but would every now and then run in front of us and perform strange love antics.
The red, somewhat gamey flesh of guinea fowl adapts well to most recipes calling for chicken. The bluish skin surprised me the first time I cooked a guinea fowl, but a thick red sauce soon covered that little element of surprise.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen