A fledgling enterprise
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