If an Egg-on-Legs is a country mile from a Poulet Fermier, then let the same be said of the gracious Pigeonneau from its too often mistaken equivalent, the feral wood pigeon.
Pigeons have always been message couriers, from the Ark, through sieges and wars, to the start of Reuters news agency - with this piece, I am the message carrier about the pigeonneau, not vice-versa.
I’ve had my culinary affair with pigeonneau since early encounters in Rudi de Volder’s highly acclaimed and starred T’convent restaurant – still remaining little known by the English these past 30 years (situated a short hour from the Channel Tunnel between Yprès and Veurne, Belgium – 00 32 57 40 07 71). I always loved to ask Rudi to ‘cook off menu’ and 9/10 it would be the ‘Duif’ as the main plate - Flemish for pigeonneau. Good chefs love them. They keep well for a week or more and cook in little over 15 minutes at 220°C.
Bringing the little gastro-gems out of the ‘fridge for 1-2 hours at room temperature to ensure the meat cooks evenly. Frankly all meat and game is the same – but this is a rule as rarely followed as resting meat after roasting.
With Laurent Le Lay of LDC/Les Charmilles as my guide, we visited an eleveur (rearing farmer) in Maine et Loire - Gilbert Meignan (here left) and Anne Perdreau at ‘La Petit Coquille’, Etriché (49330). Behind big steel gates was an angry looking German Shepherd – Gilbert opened up and the dog was then like a soppy puppy dog craving our attention as we strolled across to the birds, housed in open, airy aviaries built to protect from prevailing winds and cold.
Pigeonneaux mate for life – they are also good parents with the male and female sharing the feeding and caring for their young. The males always do the morning shift, and maman does the afternoon – both adults produce ‘crop milk’ – a mix of part digested feed and saliva – so, my friends, that joke of old about ‘pigeon’s milk’ has a reality base. After 10-12 days the young squabs beginning eating the maize and wheat based meal. Between 28-35 days they are ready for the best of tables, preferably with a good kitchen first.
Important note here for us all – as I have already written and enthused, all the feed from this French poultry farmers’ cooperative called Loué (parent company being LDC) has been ‘Sans OGM’ since 1999. That means, in the simplest terms, all the feed for all their birds, from pigeonneaux to their chickens, Guinea fowl to ducks, geese, quail and turkeys is 100% guaranteed free of Genetically Modified feed.
Too many people have told me this was impossible. These ‘too many people’ are all proved wrong. Salut LDC, salut Loué, your advance is a step towards better gastronomy as well as morality as you will not be bullied by the GM giants from St Louis and elsewhere. More of this essential, ground-breaking news in a later article.
Each ‘couple’ of pigeonneaux produce just 14 chicks per year, so it’s easy to understand why these birds are exclusive. The farmer spends a minimum of 8-10 hours each and every day tending his birds, looking after their every need, feeding, observing and of course selecting out the best for the table. Organising the farmers’ well earned holidays is a massive operation in itself.
Anjou is the centre of pigeon breeding, but in all truth, French country houses have had pigeonnièrs since the Middles Ages – they are famous and familiar architectural masterpieces and the stuff of coffee table books. This one is at my friend’s place – Château du Villiers near historic Sées. Another piece follows on the Rollo family’s amazing potagers and their ancient varieties served at their table.
The pigeonnièrs were a source of fresh meat for the gentry when the kitchen was otherwise lean on hunted or farmed meat and poultry. Boys from the kitchen would be sent out after dark to take the birds as they were resting from the houses – a quick despatch and into the kitchen for plucking and drawing. Little has changed, because even today the processing of the birds is mostly by hand – all are dry plucked before presenting in a variety of ways to suit each customer’s wishes. One little pigeonneau has around 4,700 feathers – there’s a fact to think on.
These birds carried an exclusive tag as early as 15/16th France (such as was France as series of Regions) - no commoner or serf was permitted to own or capture the noble pigeonneau – the punishment was quick, brutal and final. As we said in Old England, one might as well be caught for a sheep as a lamb. The French Revolution put paid to this exclusivity and today we can all indulge in pigeonneaux, just as long as pay first.
So many variants, some more romantic than others, like those of the great food writer himself, Pliny the Elder, are written of the shift from wild pigeon to a better tasting, domesticated fowl. Certainly they were being reared in Persia where probably the culinary arts began – Phoenicia and Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome were consumers too.
Chefs can get very picky about their pigeonneau – most want a 28-35 day old bird with a generous rounded breast conformation. Many a discussion takes place between eleveurs and chefs about this because Nature can be tricky sometimes – even with good breeding and careful rearing (the very root of the term ‘eleveur’) the breast conformation can sway between the round and the straight sided.
Weight for weight, they are gram for gram near identical – but these straight side breasted birds are dismissed by high end chefs as ‘toit d’église’ – literally, ‘church roof’, as in steep sided They are then sent for processing into a range of fine traiteur preparations – boned out stuffed, baronnets (breast & leg), suprêmes (breast + wing bone) and more besides. I asked why some 20-25 birds were set aside in a separate cage that morning in Etriché and, with typical Gallic shrug, Gilbert Meignan explained he’d put his ‘church roof’ birds to one side to avoid any silly arguments with these more difficult chefs.
For me, pigeonneau being quite such a treat for the family around our table in London, it’s one Royal Pigeonneau per each – the clue is in the prefix. These are New York dressed (innards in tact) and head on. The innards go to build the sauce – a rich, fortified wine like Porto, Marsala or other red vin-cuits of the Languedoc, a little stock, shallot, garlic and that’s it. For extra flavour depths, then rich fruits like griotte cherries or pruneaux can work well; so can citrus and, of course, the black truffle of autumn – Rudi de Volder’s precious melanosporum. Driving to the farm I passed through some deep beech and oak woods which had me thinking about returning this autumn too – cêpes de Bordeaux for sure, other varieties too.
But best to stop there. If pigeonneau is new to you, then keep it simply roasted - pink of breast and crisp of skin too. Let the roasted or even poached meat speak for itself. The broth from the carcases is another experience again.
Insist on French because only there has the art of pigeonneau rearing stayed artisanale. The table birds are fed and bred by their two parents without any farmer intervention. With pigeonneaux, intensive farming simply is not possible – so let’s raise a glass to that hard fact.
For many younger people, the pigeonneau is more likely to be eaten away from home in a restaurant, but a tradition lives on for pigeonneaux to be served on feast days and special occasions across France, Benelux and then to a lesser extent at this stage, in Spain and England.
If I am elected by the eleveurs to talk up their pigeonneaux, then expect a rise in sales in England sometime soon.
Repeat the mantra: j’adore les pigeonneaux, tu adore les pigeonneaux…………………….Salut et bon courage for a gastronomic food and tradition as old as Civilisation itself.
ENDSPIECE: Try and seek out a copy of ‘Le Pigeonneau Cuisine et Terroir’ by Dominique Georges of Les Charmilles – ISBN: 2-84567-111-3 (Tana Editions)