x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Quail of a time

Al Semman Farm is the only quail farm in the UAE and the Gulf, where there seems to be a big demand for the small birds.

An employee of Al Semman Farm located near Al Ain handles an adult quail. The farm uses blue light in the quail pens to keep the birds feeling calm.
An employee of Al Semman Farm located near Al Ain handles an adult quail. The farm uses blue light in the quail pens to keep the birds feeling calm.

Al Semman Farm is the only quail farm in the UAE and the Gulf. Sarah Wolff reports on the big demand for the small birds Few things have held the distinction of being a delicacy for so long as the quail. Some of the oldest recipes from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome feature the small but tasty fowl. A start-up quail farm in the UAE is continuing this history, making all-natural, ­antibiotic-free giant quail available at ­supermarkets throughout the country - and soon to spread to the rest of the Gulf. Salah Abu Hasira, the sales and marketing manager at Al ­Semman Farm, the only quail farm in the UAE or the Gulf region, thinks it is time to popularise quail as an everyday food. After all is said and done, the quail only takes about 20 minutes to cook before the meat is ready to be eaten. It's low in cholesterol and high in certain vitamins like B6, ­niacin and selenium. "It's very healthy - even if you eat three of them, it doesn't create a problem in your stomach and it does not make you uncomfortable," says the Palestinian sales representative, who has been with the company since this summer, when they made their ­debut on the Emirati market. Still, Abu Hasira admits he only eats quail about once a week because his wife thinks they are "a headache to prepare because they are small". Smaller than a young chicken but large enough to provide a proper amount of meat for one person, the quail at Al Semman Farm have been genetically engineered in the old-fashioned way - by selective breeding - to be about 25 per cent larger than regular wild quail. The wild version, which are prized for their slightly gamy taste and small ­ pop-in-your-mouth eggs (often eaten hard-boiled with a bit of celery salt and nothing more), are delicious, but not always safe to eat. Wild quail have been known to eat hemlock and other vegetation poisonous to humans, which in rare cases can cause acute ­rhabdomyolysis, a disease that leads to kidney failure in those who have eaten a poisoned quail. The quail at Al Semman Farm are fed a mixture of seeds and grains such as flax, corn and soybeans. The farm is located off a dirt road, and it would be easy to imagine little quail chicks flying around and nibbling on the (hopefully non-hemlock) vegetation all around. Instead, there are no birds to be seen, at least during this part of the visit. The farm is still. With prickly barbed-wire borders, personnel-only signs and a smattering of low-roofed cement block buildings, the place looks more like a high-security prison than a poultry production centre. Yesterday was slaughter day, so there are no birds hanging in the processing house. The only indication that the farm even raises birds comes when Abu Hasira walks into an area where only authorised personnel is allowed and some mild squawking becomes audible. He walks into one of the four adult quail houses on the property, where 17,000 birds are basking in a soft purplish-blue light, the kind you see in cheesy discos and in the­ ­university dormitory rooms of Pink Floyd-loving university students. "This is all the light we have in here because we want them to ­relax," says Abu Hasira. "The quail is a very stressed bird and this helps them." He is dressed up in his business uniform, a dark grey suit, with a blue surgeon's mask covering half of his face. Abu Hasira rarely has to deal with the birds directly since this falls under the auspices of James Grieg, the production manager, who is currently away on holiday. Al Semman has space for around 80,000 quail now, though they are building four more new quail ­houses, each of which can accommodate about 20,000 birds. There is also an incubating room, a ­hatchery and a "mother house" where the farm gets their quail eggs. The farm is owned by Liberty ­Investment Company, and run by Sheikh Khalid bin Abdul, a member of Sharjah's ruling Al Qasimi ­family. The name for Al Semman Farm's premium high-end brand, Al Ain Quail, was chosen for its ability to conjure up mental images of idyllic farming villages in the minds of Emiratis, says Abu Hasira. However, the farm is a good 45 kilometres away from Al Ain in Sweihan, which is best known for its sand dunes. The name Al Semman itself merely means quail in standard Arabic. Quails are thought to originate in Asia. One of the three main species of quail is known as coturnix japonica, also known as Japanese Quail, the breed that Al Semman Farm raises, though quail wasn't consumed as a foodstuff in Japan until the 1900s. According to lore, wild quail would ­migrate from Asia and fly over Europe before finally flying down to Alexandria, Egypt. Once the Alexandrians discovered them on the shore, they came out with wet blankets to swoop over the quail and net sufficient numbers, something they did with relative ease as the quail were fatigued from their long flight across the sea. In Egypt, dishes made with wild quail have been found in the step-shaped pyramid tombs of Saqqara that date from the second dynasty - around 2,800BC. In Mediterranean countries, however, eating quail has ­always been popular. Ancient ­Roman cooks created ways to ­prepare it - such as wrapping the whole bird in vine leaves and roasting it on a spit - that are still in use today. But this is ancient history (both ­literally and figuratively) to Abu ­Hasira, who stresses that the farm is both completely halal while ­remaining both hi-tech and ­hygienic. "Abu Dhabi Food Control used us as an example for other farms in [terms of] hygiene, construction - everything," says Abu Hasira ­proudly. True, the farm is immaculate, though it was only put into high-gear operation this summer. Everything is new, shiny and freshly painted. It is also trying to expand quickly, since they are having a hard time fulfilling all of its UAE orders, much less ones from outside of the Emirates. The Al Ain brand and the lower-priced Jumbo brand are sold at all outlets of Carrefour and Lulu Hypermarket, as well as high-end hotels like the Intercontinental Al Ain and Le Meridien Abu Dhabi. "The quality is very good and we can get a big size. Even when I was in Europe it was not so easy to find that big of a quail," says Dominique Morin, the French-born executive chef for Le Meridien Abu Dhabi, who serves Al Semman Farm's quail in his outlets. "[It] is very meaty, very good quality and it's a local ­product." To illustrate Al Ain brand's bird size in comparison to regular quail, Abu Hasira compares it to the bird's airborne metal contemporary, the aeroplane. "Al Ain, it's not even jumbo - it's super jumbo," he says with the excitement that only salesmen and children can generate. "You know the Airbus? It's an Airbus 380!" Weighing in at 180 to 250 grams per bird, it's really more of a twin prop Cessna, yet nonetheless makes for a nice, intimate dinner. Morin praises quail in general as a quick-cooking and inventive choice for a restaurant or a home menu. "The way we do it, boneless, in salad or roasted, is very good because we can get a big size," says Morin, whose kitchens serve ­pan-fried quail breast atop a bed of rocket greens as a starter at Le Meridien Abu Dhabi. However, for most people, quail is still considered a speciality best prepared by professional chefs who know what to do with their little bodies that contain a plethora of bones and usually just a bit of meat. "The reason that some people don't like quail is because it's difficult to eat," he explains. "It should be easy to eat. If they [diners] see a bird with a lot of bones, they don't know where to start." Morin has found a creative way to deal with the problem. "The way we serve it in our hotel is we debone it completely and ­reshape the quail so when you are getting your plate, you don't know that it's boneless because it's ­exactly the same shape as the quail." This might sound a bit complicated, but when Morin recently served some VIP guests his special oven-baked whole, deboned quail filled with duck foie gras and bread stuffing and served with wild mushrooms and chestnuts, the guests were delighted. "Quail is a unique product, and very specialised. When people eat it, they do not feel something like [they do] when eating a duck or guinea fowl," says Abu Hasira. "These are very strong tastes; you cannot eat them every day. But quail, you could eat it every day and they are not heavy, nor do you feel heavy when you eat them." Now, mind you, no one is claiming that you can eat four quails and then go for a brisk run, but there is something lighter and portion-minded about this svelte little bird. Morin usually serves one whole quail per person as a main course along with some side dishes, but Abu Hasira sheepishly reveals that one bird would not be enough to sate his appetite. "I have clients who come here from Dubai and they take 80 birds for one barbecue," he says, perhaps as proof that he is not alone in his hunger. "You ask, 'How many are you guys?' They say, 'Maybe five or six'. So they have 10 to 12 each," he adds with laughter. Now that he has been with the company for a while, Abu Hasira says he's developed his own recipes with a Levantine twist. His personal favourite that incorporates mushrooms and an Arabic spice mix with coriander, black pepper, cloves, ­cumin, cardamom, paprika, nutmeg and cinnamon. The quail is cooked en papillote, the French technique of steam-cooking food in a sealed package on a grill, a stove top or in the oven. He says: "This is my way: you take the ­Arabic spices, three spoons of soy sauce, pieces of fresh ginger, some salt and you mix it with a spoon of lemon juice, fresh onions cut in thick rather than thin half moons and the mushrooms." While marinating the whole quail together with the vegetables and sauce for about half an hour, make an aluminium foil packet and place it in an oven-appropriate dish. The onions, mushrooms, quail and marinade all go into foil, which you then fold up into a sealed packet. "You leave it for 20 minutes [in the oven], and you find it has been cooked by steam." After opening the pouch, put the whole dish under the broiler until the quail is brown on top. "I ate it already this week," he says, smiling at the memory. swolff@thenational.ae