In grand houses across Europe, the more so in France, pigeoneau played as vital a role to subsistence and feasting as the deer park and the local river.
Pigeonniers are an architechural feature of chateaux and manoirs large and small. There are even coffee table books about them. The nearest 20th century equivalent would be France’s iconic water towers in their 30s to 50s magnificence’ often with graphics to match their age.
Here’s the story. When the kitchen ran short of meat with the weather too harsh for hunting on horseback for deer or boar, or with dogs and guns for partridge, pheasant, woodcock, wild ducks, etc, the pigeoneau was always to hand – literally.
They were reared and lived their entire life within the confines of the huge pigeonnier – most 25-30′ tall and some nearly as wide. They could fly around and up and down as the core space was empty from earth floor to roof. Around the edges were wooden platforms, corresponding with the holes in the brick or stone work. These beautiful pigeon lofts were invariably round in shape with decorative features in keeping with the big house, or not.
When meat was short, chef would instruct the kitchen boys to go to the pigeonnier at dead of night whilst the birds were asleep. In minutes they’d have a few dozen in their basket. They never ran short. All that was required was to put you arm through the holes and pull out a sleeping bird. Their necks were rung immediately, so like the famous epic poem about Sir John Moore and the battle of Corunna, when they woke in the morning they were all dead.
These plump breasted birds are related to the dove and come in a variety of colours from white to brown and black, with variegated plummage in between. One if sufficient for a single portion but I imagine in the old days two or three would have been offered.
I’ve also heard of them being gilded with gold and silver leaf, along with wild quails and other tiny birds to do no more than decorate the master’s table on feast days. Pièces Montées became ever more elaborate from Tudor times through to the early Victorians when all excesses became frowned upon in England – whereas in the grand houses of France, from the Trianon in Versailles to the smaller country gentleman’s manoir, the fashion continued.
Fast forward to the 20th century and pigeoneau have been a chef’s stand by much as they were centuries ago - they roast to a turn in just 14 minutes in a hot oven. I can’t imagine cooking them any other way as the skin crisps, the legs always juicy and the breast stays rare.
They are not cheap. Four for last night’s dinner cost me 36 Euro, but the delight on faces around the table makes the price worthwhile.
Please don’t ever confuse a pigeoneau – in America they are called ‘squabs’ - with a feral wood pigeon. Wood pigeon are vermin much like rabbits, squirrels and magpies. They can be shot all year round as a flock of pigeons can destroy a freshly seeded field in no more than one day or two. Most arable farmers will let you walk around his land with a gun to take all you can shoot.
They’re crafty quarry in that they can detect the pink of a man’s face from high in the sky – they fly in from nowhere and are gone in a blink. People like shooting them for this challenge alone – often going to great lengths to camouflage themselves, build makeshift hides and more. I even know of one father and son in the New Forest who have built a hide just below the tree top canopy to get closer to their quarry. A bag of 100 or more is to them a good morning’s work – and more than pays for drinks and petrol when sold on to local restaurants.
Take a shot and the chances are the bird will ‘chink’ – ie completely change direction of flight – before your shot gets anywhere close. If you must eat wood pigeon I suggest you do no more than slit from neck to tail breast side up – pull back the skin, feathers and all, then with a sharp, flexible knife take out the two breast portions as close to the rib cage as you’re able. The meat is very dark and, to me, unattractive. One’s only guarantee is that they are well fed as they exist on seed, berries and insects. They should be eaten as close to the day they are shot. Remember too I’m talking of wood pigeons – they have the white band around the neck – the other is definitely not for eating.
These breast pieces should be sautéed in a hot pan for 2-3 minutes per side. Wild, foraged mushrooms continue the theme, as do cooked chestnuts. Served warm, they can help build a salade composé with lardons, gesiers, large croutons, walnuts, poached eggs and whatever else you have to hand.
All I ask is never, ever to confuse a wood pigeon with a pigeoneau, which is as aristocratic as its custom built home in centuries past.
The South West of France has some of the finest pigeonniers and for some reason I am drawn to drinking big, round local wines like Cahors, Madiran, Buzet, Péchcharmant and their likes with my pigeoneau. Last night I served ours with thick slices of seared fresh foie gras and a rich, red wine sauce finished with 2-3 generous teaspoons of Confit of airelles.
I’m all the sadder we don’t have a plentiful supply and our own magnificent pigeon house at home – we do have plenty wood pigeons though, as do most people in this country. You know the urban myth – nobody can claim to have seen a baby pigeon. Funny that.
Available the year round as pigeoneau are neither game birds or seasonal, now makes them the more special as for us poultry is for Christmas as lamb or kid is for Easter.