Vermont Game Birds

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(HOST) Continuing this week, VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food.” Today, commentator Elizabeth Ferry considers a locally grown alternative to traditional turkey and chicken.

(FERRY) “In the bleak midwinter,” begins a seasonal hymn, “frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”

Those words describe the landscape in Old England, where the hymn originates, as well as New England at the darkest time of year. Now, as then, humans counteract the moaning winds outdoors with bright lights, the company of friends and a groaning sideboard of seasonal delicacies.

Vermont farmers have a lot to bring to this table; of particular note are specialty meats. There is grass-fed beef, pastured pork, organic lamb and free-range poultry, as well as some unexpected offerings: buffalo, beefalo, elk, emu and – the newest ones to me – game birds, such as quail, pheasant and Guinea hens.

One such enterprise is Cavendish Game Birds, owned and operated by brothers Rick and Bill Thompson. The story of their farm began ten years ago when Bill was a chef at the Weathersfield Inn. He liked to prepare pheasant for the Inn’s guests, but didn’t have a reliable source for them, so he raised a few in the backyard. And a few more. And it became clear that he was on to something.

Bill convinced his brother Rick, who was working in the food distribution business, to join him. Combining their professional skills with Yankee ingenuity and determination, the two men hatched a new form of agriculture in Vermont: game birds. Rick and Bill raise quail on a former dairy farm in Springfield.

Quail are extraordinary little birds. They hatch from eggs that are beautifully speckled in white, brown and black. When they break through the shell and emerge into the world, quail are about the size of a frog. Within six to seven weeks, they are full-grown and mature.

Demand for game birds has grown to such a level that the Thompsons now contract farmers around Vermont to raise Chinese ring-neck pheasants and their African cousin, Guinea hens, as well.

All three types – quail, pheasant and Guinea hens – have a rich flavor. Pheasant is prized for its white meat, quail and Guinea hens for their dark meat. There is no great mystery as how to prepare them. Don’t be afraid; go into it with confidence and don’t overcook.

The earth may be as hard as iron right now but, thankfully, Vermont farmers raise a bounty of specialty meats. Look for these products in stores that are local and independent – like Vermont farmers – and that newest marketplace, the internet.

This is Elizabeth Ferry of East Barnard, encouraging you to find both physical and spiritual sustenance this holiday season in locally grown, very Vermont food.

Writer and photographer Elizabeth Ferry is an educator for the Hanover Food Co-op. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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