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Faraona arrosto (roast guinea hen)
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Faraona arrosto (roast guinea hen)

Guinea fowl Just exotic enough to be interesting without tipping over into weird, a guinea fowl - the bird that the Italians know as "faraone" and the French as "pintade" - makes an intriguing, if rather pricey, occasional alternative to chicken.

Named after its original home range in coastal Western Africa (which also gives its name to the old-fashioned British coin named for the gold mined in the region), the guinea fowl was once a game bird, but most of the hens sold nowadays are raised on farms. It's about the size of a pheasant, and is sometimes compared to that bird in culinary terms. The meat is light and delicate, similar to chicken but perceptibly more flavorful, without any obvious "gamey" qualities.

Packed for sale, a guinea hen will usually be 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, about the size of a small chicken. It's quite a bit more expensive, though: On a whim the other night, I picked up a frozen 3-pound bird for a cool $22 at a local upscale grocery. The same bird, purchased fresh online from the producer (Grimaud Farms of Stockton, Calif., subsidiary of a French firm), would have been "only" $14.50, but the cost of packaging charges and FedEx second-day shipping would have added another 23 bucks, bringing the bottom line up to a point well beyond my threshold of resistance.

It made an intriguing change of pace, prepared in the following quick and relatively simple Tuscan fashion. If you can't get or don't want to bother with guinea hen, you could certainly substitute a chicken in this dish; but it's worth trying the real thing once.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 guinea hen, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds (a little over 1 kilogram)
1 ounce (30 grams) pancetta
2 cloves garlic
3-inch sprig fresh rosemary
12 leaves fresh sage
Black pepper
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 thin slices prosciutto or ham (optional)
1/4 cup Bourbon


1. First, if necessary, thaw the bird. (If you're in a hurry, submerging it in a bath of warm water will speed the process.) Using sturdy kitchen shears, cut the bird in half, splitting it down the breast and either dividing or, for neatness, removing the backbone. As noted, if you wish you can substitute a chicken - ideally a flavorful free-range bird - with good results.

2. Preheat your oven to 425F (220C). While it's heating, chop the rosemary leaves and the sage; dice the pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon) and mince the garlic, and mash it all together into a paste with salt and pepper to taste and the olive oil. Lift the breast skin on each half and spread this paste underneath. The pancetta will render in the oven heat, infusing the breast meat with the delicious flavors of herbs, garlic and bacon.

3. Rub each half of the hen with a little more olive oil, and put them on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. OPTIONAL STEP: Most Tuscan recipes recommend draping the breast portion of each half with a thin slice of prosciutto to keep it from drying out (and, one assumes, to add a nice crunchy treat to the finished dish). I tried this with sweet ham and found it started charring after a while, so I removed the ham and let the bird finish without it, saving the crispy ham to cut into slivers for use as a garnish on the plate. It's your choice: It tastes good, but I think the hen would roast as well without it.

4. Put the bird in the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes, basting occasionally with a bit of the Bourbon. (Or sweet Tuscan Vin Santo, if you prefer the more authentic tradition.) Then reduce heat to 350F (175C) and roast for another 30 minutes or so, basting occasionally with the juices that accumulate in the roasting pan.

I accompanied it with a fresh spring asparagus risotto, but it would make an equally good dinner with a simple pasta or rice plus a green vegetable or salad.

WEB LINKS: Grimaud Farms, a California-based producer of guinea fowl (and Muscovy ducks) has an information page about the guinea hen at

An Italian food-and-wine site,, has an intriguing article in English about game and poultry (including the guinea hen) at

WINE MATCH: This Tuscan dish calls for a snappy Northern Italian red, and the recently reviewed Castello di Cacchiano 1998 Rosso Toscana ( filled the bill. So would just about any Rosso di Toscana, Chianti, Brunello, Umbrian red or even a modest Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

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Thursday, April 24, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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