A fledg­ling en­ter­prise

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

When it comes to pri­vate en­ter­prise, most 15-year-olds are do­ing well if they have a pa­per round. Tommy Burner has gone one bet­ter. He has built up a busi­ness breed­ing poul­try and sell­ing eggs to lo­cal shops and restau­rants; he owns 3,500 quail and 300 ducks, and he has earned enough to im­port two in­cu­ba­tors worth £1,000 each from China.

When I vis­ited the hill­side small­hold­ing near Ply­mouth where Tommy lives with his par­ents, Jenny and Gra­ham, it had been rain­ing hard. Tommy, slim and brown haired, came lol­lop­ing down the muddy path­way to meet us, smil­ing shyly, with grey-haired Gra­ham strid­ing be­hind. He looks young for his age: young, cer­tainly, for a food pi­o­neer.

Quail are not widely farmed in this coun­try; their meat and eggs are mostly im­ported from the Con­ti­nent. But they are an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar restau­rant dish, and the diminu­tive birds and eggs turn up reg­u­larly on menus such as that of Lon­don’s Gymkhana (quail seekh ke­bab) and the An­gela Hart­nett-backed Mer­chants Tav­ern, where it shares the plate with hazel­nut pesto, re­moulade and foie gras.

The charm of the quail lies not only in its dainty, minia­tureroast-chicken ap­pear­ance. Its flesh has a more in­tense taste than chicken, and the lit­tle birds are ideal to eat with fin­gers – ev­ery juicy scrap can be sucked off their slen­der bones. The eggs are pretty much in­dis­tin­guish­able in flavour from hens’, but as tiny fried eggs on toast or Lil­liputian Scotch eggs (see recipe) they are hard to beat as starters.

Tommy and I headed off to see the quail, past a ram­shackle pen where six calves – Friesian, Jersey and Here­ford – snug­gled to­gether and an open-sided barn where a dozen sad­dle­back pigs rooted around an old cart. From a raised wooden shed, hand-built by Tommy, came a rustling and throaty chirrup­ing like a husky Trim­phone. “That’s the cock birds,” the young­ster ex­plained. “You can spot them by their darker chests.”

In­side, the shed was di­vided into a dozen sec­tions, each the size of a walk-in cup­board. In each one, an an­kle-high mass of vi­brat­ing feath­ers thronged round the feeder. Some were tiny, palm-sized, and mostly white; oth­ers were brown and about as big as a tin of beans. Not all quail are the same, it would seem, though medi­um­sized “Ja­panese” birds are the breed most used for meat and eggs. Tommy reeled off the names of his other va­ri­eties like other boys list Pre­mier League foot­ballers: “Texas A& M, Ital­ian, red Ten­nessee, jumbo, Chi­nese painted, old English white, golden gi­ant – they look like Ja­panese but are heav­ier, about a pound a bird.”

Tommy’s quail are reared in­doors, un­like his ducks. But in fact, ac­cord­ing to El­lie Sa­vory, who with her hus­band, John, runs Nor­folk Quail, the only com­mer­cial free-to-fly quail farm in Bri­tain, it is il­le­gal to keep some species of quail free range as they are not in­dige­nous – and even our na­tive wild quail mi­grate in the win­ter. “They’d die if they were out­side in the win­ter – it’s too cold,” Sa­vory ex­plained when I called her. The im­por­tant fac­tor is that both Tommy’s and Sa­vory’s birds have the height in their pens to fly up, while other farms keep them in low cages. “If they aren’t ex­er­cised then they put on weight more quickly, and can be slaugh­tered ear­lier, as young as six weeks,” she added. But it’s the older birds that have more flavour.

Keep­ing the quail is a full­time job. Tommy starts work at 8am and some­times doesn’t fin­ish un­til 11pm. He is home schooled – in part be­cause he was un­happy at school, but also be­cause “he wanted to go in for an­i­mals”, ex­plained Jenny. She in­te­grates the school­work into his pas­sion, so the in­cu­ba­tors from China were tracked from the depot to the dock in Bri­tain, and maths topics are cov­ered as he does his books record­ing the 60 dozen eggs he sells a week for con­sump­tion, as well as the eggs and birds that go to be hatched or used for breed­ing stock.

In a sep­a­rate shed, Tommy showed me two in­cu­ba­tors the size of a fam­ily fridge-freezer. In­side, trays of eggs were be­ing kept at the per­fect tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity for hatch­ing, and rolled me­chan­i­cally, cru­cial for suc­cess­ful hatch­ing – his early at­tempts had a home-made turn­ing mech­a­nism. The eggs were palely mot­tled (a sign of a clean en­vi­ron­ment: quail adapt the colour­ing of their egg shells to cam­ou­flage them, so blacker mark­ings in­di­cate too many drop­pings ly­ing about).

One of Tommy’s eggs was just crack­ing open, re­veal­ing a minia­ture chick, the size of the toy kind that gets stuck on top of Easter eggs. Tommy’s first quail were like this: six-day-old chicks, a present from his aunt when he was 11. He was hooked im­me­di­ately, and was soon breed­ing prize-win­ning birds from the orig­i­nal clutch.

Back in the fam­ily Por­tak­abin (they are plan­ning to build them­selves a log cabin), Tommy showed me the 3D com­puter de­signs he had made for the new quail house he was hop­ing to build. It in­cluded a “clean room” for pro­cess­ing meat, which he needs if he is to take the busi­ness to the next level and sell gutted, plucked birds for the ta­ble. It was gen­er­ously sized. “You are al­lowed to keep 111 quail per square me­tre. That’s just too tight,” ex­plained Tommy. “I have far fewer.”

Last year there were some prof­its, Jenny told me, “so we did let him buy a re­mote­con­trol aero­plane and some nitro cars.” This year, how­ever, all the rev­enue will go into new equip­ment, and to­wards the new shed, which Tommy will build him­self, as he did the old one, call­ing in his fa­ther only when an ex­tra pair of hands are needed.

En­ter­pris­ing stuff. I won’t be sur­prised to see Tommy’s quail busi­ness re­ally take wing in the years to come.

Tommy’s eggs are avail­able from in­de­pen­dent shops in Devon, in­clud­ing Mangetout Deli and Alans Ap­ple in Kings­bridge.

Bri­tish free-to-fly quail and eggs are avail­able from nor­folkquail.co.uk. call 01328 829249 for mail or­der. Scotch eggs have be­come cool, par­tic­u­larly in posh pubs. Un­like su­per­mar­ket ver­sions, the gourmet eggs are soft boiled, a trick that is eas­ier than it looks to achieve and makes per­fect Christ­mas starters. 12 quail eggs 6 large sausages 2 tbsp flour A hen’s egg, beaten Bread­crumbs Veg­etable oil for fry­ing

Bring a pan of wa­ter to the boil and slip the quail eggs in us­ing a slot­ted spoon. Boil for two and a half min­utes then drain and plunge eggs into a bowl of iced wa­ter. Leave to cool, then peel.

Squeeze sausage meat from skins and mould half a sausage’s worth around each egg – use wet hands. Roll the balls in your palms to en­sure there are no cracks.

Roll each in flour, then egg, then bread­crumbs. Heat oil in a saucepan – deep enough to come half­way up the eggs – and fry for three to four min­utes, turn­ing so they are golden brown all over. Serve halved, warm or cold.

Best of Bri­tish pluck: Tommy Burner has 3,500 quail

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