Appears in
Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

quail Coturnix coturnix, the smallest of the European game birds, belongs to the same family, Phasianidae, as the partridge and indeed looks like a very small partridge. Its numerous relations around the world are divided into Old World quail (Coturnix) and New World (Odontophoridae family, but several genera). The New World species is not migratory, and is only distantly related to its Old World namesakes. All may be eaten.

In Europe, quail fly across the Mediterranean from Africa to their breeding grounds further north. They may get as far as Britain and southern Scandinavia. As the Book of Exodus has it, ‘and it came to pass at even, the quails came up and covered the camp’. And the writer Claudia Roden recalls, ‘My favourite [picnic] was on the dunes of Agami in Alexandria. It was timed to coincide with the arrival of migrating quails on the beaches. The birds fell exhausted, to be caught in large nets and collected in baskets. They were cleaned and marinated in a rich cumin and coriander sauce and grilled on the beach over small fires.’ In the Middle Ages, as quail made their return journey in the autumn, they would be netted, salted, and barrelled by the townsfolk of Brindisi.