As I ambled through the galleries of the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan the other day, my attention focused on pendant windows, 1497-1499, the only surviving stained glass from the cemetery church of Saint Salvator, Munich. Although the represented scenes were the Gathering and Transporting of Manna, the accompanying wall text referenced the rest of the Exodus story and, hence, the Miracle of Quail. Manna was not the only thing sustaining the Israelites on their flight from Egypt.
I was familiar with various aspects of the Israelites’ journey, its hardships and attendant miracles. With a change of heart, Pharaoh sent his forces to bring Moses and his people back but the chariots and horsemen were swallowed by the Red Sea. Thirst overtook the company but the bitter water of Marah was turned sweet. Hunger followed thirst. Again, God intervened, informing Moses that “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day…” (Exodus 16:4). But quail? My knowledge of the story was obviously lacking and so I read on. Then, only nine verses after the first mention of manna, there it was: the miracle of quail!
“In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew [man hu, or manna] lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground,” which, we are told in Numbers 11:7, “was like coriander seed.” It could be ground in mills, boiled in pots, and made into cakes. Clearly, manna was miraculous stuff but the daily appearance of quail at suppertime must be assessed no less extraordinary.
Quail have been associated with “corlew,” the Middle English term that in all likelihood refers to the true quail, or coturnix. Corlew are referenced in “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” circa 1370-1390, an allegorical poem composed of a series of visions comprising a quest for a true Christian life. In Passus XIV, lines 41-46, the character of “Patience” instructs Haukyn on how to recognize God’s merciful blessings. According to “Patience,” heavenly blessings are, as it were, food for the soul, a form of spiritual sustenance. The point “Patience” tries to make is this. Human beings are sustained by something they cannot see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Yet this sustenance – God’s grace – is everywhere. It is like the air through which the corlew (or quail) flies. The analogy was particularly well chosen because at the time the curlew was believed to feed not grains and insects but on air.
Medieval beliefs aside, the sixteenth century quail – like other types of fowl, including capon, blackbirds, dove, pheasant, partridge, and the meat of virgin chicken (those having never laid an egg) – came to be esteemed as a noble food. Quail was counted among the “animali volatili” recommended for noble consumption by Baldassare Pisanelli in his Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere, first published in Rome in 1583. Pisanelli, a Bolognese doctor who authored a treatise on the plague and another on scorpions as well as the Trattato dealing with the nature of comestibles, reasoned that because birds fly they are light.* This capacity rendered them light and, consequently, easily digestible and well suited for those with delicate digestive tracks.
Around 1580, the northern Italian artist Vincenzo Campi painted a series of five canvases of food vendors for one of Europe’s wealthiest mercantile families, the Fuggers of Augsburg. The Poulterers is among them. Like the Master of Hartford’s Still Life of Dead Birds in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, Campi’s painting presents the viewer with a display of all manner of fowl, large and small, some trussed and suspended, others living and stuffed into baskets.
Among the difference between Campi’s work and that of the Master of Hartford is the inclusion of two poulterers in Campi’s painting. With the carcass of a large bird slung across her lap, the woman is clearly a member of the low, working class. So, too, is the boy with a dead hare draped around his shoulders and a rebellious duck grasped in his hands.** It’s difficult not to see humor in Campi’s rustic pair but as Sheila McTighe has argued, these villani serve an additional function. Much of what they sell was perceived to be the very things they should not eat. Ducks aside, fowl was viewed as noble fare well-suited to the physiology of the highborn digestive system. “Signet [swan], capon stued [stewed], heron” as well as “crane, rabbit, chicken, partridge, peacock [‘pecok enhakyll’ – roasted & served in its plumage], egret, cock, plover, [and] quail” was proper for a king and members of his court… or so suggests the menu for the Coronation Banquet of Henry IV in 1429. Campi’s poulterers were better off eating beans, which, says Pisanelli, offered only “poor nourishment to delicate persons.”(1)
More than members of the nobility were counted among “delicate persons.” During the Renaissance, pregnant women consumed plenty of pigeon, capon, geese, and other fowl deemed appropriately delicate yet fortifying for the expectant mother. In her article “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Jacqueline Musacchio not only illustrates a wonderful array of birth scenes, paintings of the Birth of the Virgin or that of John the Baptist, she also cites supportive personal documents, such as the record of one “Girolamo, a Florentine notary, [who] writes, ‘I record how on the 18th of September 1473 at about the 23rd hour my wife Caterina’s labor began. For this reason I bought… one fat pigeon.”(2)
Bartolomeo Scappi suggested that quail, like turtledoves, small coots, woodcocks and teal ducks, be seared on the coals. They can then be dressed with any number of sauces. Current recipes, like that of Hank Shaw, tend to concur with Scappi’s late sixteenth-century advice.
“Regardless of species, all quail roast the same. The basic rule for quail is hot and fast. Really hot and really fast. I like about 500°F for about 15 minutes or so. This will cook your little birds nicely, although they will be a little pale — a price to pay for juicy and tender meat.”
As for a recipe, try adapting Lorenza de’ Medici’s “Palombe alla Ghiotta” (or wild pigeon stewed in red wine), which calls for a long cook of the birds in bath of red wine (1 quart), 3 tablespoons or so of red wine vinegar, 4 garlic cloves, a sprig of rosemary, a small bunch of sage tied together, a small onion quartered, 4 oz. prosciutto, 4 anchovy fillets in oil, 1 tablespoon capers, Lorenza da’ Medici, Florentines. A Tuscan Feast (New York: Random House, 1992), page 52.
Or… roast quail as the base for a pasta sauce!
(*But not all things that fly won Pisanelli’s favor. Ducks are struck from his list. Because they dwell in marshes and tend to be very rich are good for those with a stomaco di fuoco, or cast-iron stomach!)
(** As McTighe, page 311, explains, both the duck and the hare were “associated with vile stature: the hare ‘because it yields a very dirty and melancholic blood’ and the duck because of its association with an unhealthy environment of dank marshes, cold, and wet humors.”
- Pisanelli as quoted in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Painting, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 308.
- Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 16, no. 2 (1997), 3-9 (Girolamo’s record, page 7).