Saturday, 12 July 2014

Hemlock, Quails and Medieval Morsels

The quail is Europe's smallest game bird, much smaller than its cousins - the partridge, pigeon or pheasant. And, as is often surprisingly the case, I happened to have such a pair in my fridge - courtesy of a well-known British supermarket. Here are the quail before cooking, and how tiny they are!
Plump quail.

Did you know that collective noun for many several quail is a "bevy" and this term can be used for beauties, ladies, maidens as well as larks and doves? The explosion of collective nouns in the English language is just amazing - you need only explore  http://en.wiktionary.org/

In Medieval times quails may have been popular eating with noble ladies at dinner, but they would have hardly provided more than a mouthful or two of meat for a hungry prince, or a growing squire, or an aspiring knight in training. Quails were rare, reserved for aristocratic dining.

And here's why. They first arrived on the medieval menu in England via France - netted and shipped live to British shores in little cages complete, it is recorded, with grain and water for their journey. Given all this effort, they must have commanded a very high price and be bound for some of the richest households in the kingdom.

MedievalMorsels' range of one inch scale dollhouse miniature foods now includes it namesake "morsel" if you will, the brazier, spit or oven roasted quail! The daintiest 12th scale poultry I need ever model for a Medieval or Tudor dolls house setting because I am not about to  recreate the song bird repertoire eaten in Medieval times!
MedievalMorsels poorly plucked quail, delicate 12th scale dolls house food 
Despite its small size, the European Quail is a migratory bird capable of flying phenomenal distances.  It could be netted at known feeding points en route, or where it fell exhausted to the ground after literally making landfall (fall - get it?) after a long sea passage.

Quail's migration is mentioned in Exodus: "And it came to pass at even(ing), the quails came up and covered the camp." But therein lies a surprise, read on below.

The well known Mediterranean food writer and presenter Claudia Roden recalls annual picnics at the Dunes of Agami near Alexandria, Egypt. Here quail, having fallen from the sky, were cleaned and gutted, marinaded with spices and then cooked over small fires on the beach. I doubt if this picnic practice would have been much different in Medieval and even earlier times. Now it is lucky there were no fatalities associated with Ms Roden's family picnics...

Quite inadvertently this quail (Coturnix coturnix) has a more sinister side. The Romans, very clever in almost all things, had "cottoned on" to the dangers of the migratory quail. They considered the birds unwholesome because they ate poisonous plants, notably hemlock seeds, so their flesh was known to be capable of poisoning people. Their meat acted as a proxy agent for the potentially fatal hemlock toxins. Something today medically known, after the Latin name for the quail, as "coturnism".


First described in the Bible (Numbers, 11 v31) this acute and often fatal poisoning has been observed in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. The true incidence of coturnism is unknown, many cases  are not undiagnosed. Modern cases, not necessarily fatal if recognised in time, are occasionally written up in the medical literature. This helps to remind practising physicians that such an obscure condition really does exist. 

I cannot say if coturnism was ever the featured as the mysterious, life threatening medical condition in an episode of the "forensic" medical drama "House, MD" - once the most widely watched TV series in the world. It might have required a convoluted storyline, so as not to confuse American viewers with the unrelated Californian Quail!