Over the years my family has occupied three separate houses across North Norfolk, all approximately equidistant from Norwich and Cromer, and all surrounded by cultivated fields. The first house we inhabited had only one near neighbour, an otherwise surly old farm hand but with the affable features of a battered Toby Jug. His wife, equally surly, had no redeeming features save only a sun-blistered face redolent of a welder’s bench. She never smiled and, sustained by a surfeit of unfriendliness, nothing managed to modify the critical stares with which she greeted us on a daily basis. How, I thought, had the couple managed to transmit, Konrad Lorenz-like, such characteristics to their flock of free-range Guinea fowl. A flock I might add, that roamed unperturbed and uninvited from their garden into ours. I christened them – the birds that is, not the neighbours – Cosa Nostra. They forayed as an aggressive mob, made a lot of unnecessary noise and spent most of the time harrying our dogs or trying to remodel the patellas of our visitors.

When I first encountered this ornithological Mafia I had never tasted Guinea fowl, although had I access to a shotgun they would have been the first of their breed to stimulate my appetite. As it happens, I located a nearby farm that raises a larger and evidently more disciplined flock of free-range Guinea hens. Eating them, now quite regularly, reminds me of that truculent flock and I can still hear their discordant cackle, a noise reminiscent of a teenage learner driver trying to find reverse gear in the course of a failed driving test.

Although recorded in ancient Egypt, it was the later Roman Empire that first transported the wild species to Britain. As the Romans finally left and abandoned their well cultivated farms, most of their newly introduced species; pigeons, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants and guinea fowl, promptly scooted into the surrounding woodlands where most were gobbled up by wolverine predators or invading Caledonians. Not until the sixteenth century did the birds make a more regular appearance on European supper tables. Shipped across, in probably better conditions than their fellow passengers, by Portugese slave traders returning from their colonies in West Africa – later known as Guinea-Bissau.

Today, Italians worship their Faraona and the French adore their Pintades, whilst the ancient Greeks knew them as Meleagris. We in turn seem to have been less enthusiastic. This is an oversight. A free-range Guinea hen, bred widely now in Britain, has all the succulent flavours of a well-reared chicken coupled with the woody gaminess of a pheasant.

The recipe, from that seminal opus – The River Café Cook Book Easy (2003) by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, is as follows;

2 Guinea fowl
4 Garlic cloves
2 tbs Rosemary leaves
1 Red onion
3 Fennel bulbs
Extra virgin olive oil
10 Pancetta slices
250 ml White wine

Cut up each guinea fowl into 8 pieces. Wipe the pieces clean and trim off any fat.
Peel and finely chop the garlic and chop the rosemary
Peel the onion, and cut the onion and fennel into eighths.
Cut the pancetta into 1cm pieces.
Preheat the oven to 200°C / Gas mark 6.
Mix the garlic and rosemary with salt and pepper.
Put the guinea fowl into a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and add the garlic mixture. Turn each piece over to thoroughly coat.
Put the guinea fowl in one layer in a roasting tin and scatter the fennel, red onion and pancetta over.
Drizzle with olive oil and roast for ½ hour.
Add the wine and roast for a further 20 minutes.
Raise the heat to 225°C/ gas mark 9 for the last few minutes to brown.

Wine thoughts

With fennel and garlic as major players in this dish, I would always opt for the vegetal bouquet and herbal flavours of a Sauvignon Blanc. Its heartland in the Loire will provide crisp, firm, precise flavours in the form of Sancerre. In New Zealand they’ve gussied the grape up a little and given it a popular sheen of tropical fruits and battened down the racy green styles of the Old World. In California they confusingly re-named it Fumé Blanc, although that did wonders for the bottom line. New or Old world would work well here, I’ll leave you to toss the coin.