Mankind has a schizophrenic relationship with the pigeon. In the countryside, their flute-like warble is an essential part of the rural soundscape, along with the sounds of the guns bringing them down as a treat for the table. Pigeon fanciers, who like pigeons an awful lot, will keep them for racing. The homing capabilities of pigeons have made them valuable couriers of military messages in wars right up to the present day.
In cities, however, pigeons are considered to be vermin. These poor critters are kicked and poisoned all the way along their lame, twisted-footed lives.
As for eating them, it does not take a genius to work out that if Neolithic man was living in caves, then the same caves would have been home to a great many pigeons. With nutritious, energy-rich food that close at hand, who would not be tempted? They are easy to domesticate too, so humans have been eating pigeons for at least 10,000 years, if not a lot longer. Pigeons were so prized, that there are records of them being used for religious sacrifice. Notably, in 1100 BC, King Rameses III sacrificed 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes. Pigeons undergo a similar fate several times in the Christian Bible.
In the UK, pigeons were on the menu in the Roman area, and there are writings on the consumption of pigeons as far back at the 5th Century. Dovecotes – buildings used to house pigeons – appear in the UK around the 12th Century. These were used to maintain a supply of domesticated pigeons for food, and their excrement was collected and used in fertiliser and gunpowder. Domestication of pigeons for food has declined to zero in the UK, and most are now kept for racing-related sports. This has come about because of US-originated misinformation on the disease-carrying capabilities of pigeons. Misinformation, of course, is nonsense, and for this reason, I cannot walk past a meat counter that has pigeon in it and not buy three of them for our little family.
When it comes to cooking game birds, pigeons are among the easiest to do. They are so small, that the breasts cook very quickly without becoming dry – so there is no need to do things like wrap them in bacon. The recipe given here comes from Tom Kitchin’s Meat & Game. It comes together very quickly, and it is a classic marriage of game birds and fruit.
Roast pigeon and cherry sauce
- 4 oven-ready wood pigeons, with the wishbones removed
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
- 4 rosemary sprigs
- 4 thyme sprigs
- Olive oil
- 100g butter, plus an extra knob for finishing
- 200ml full-bodied red wine
- 50ml kirsch
- 350ml game stock or chicken stock (I had some grouse stock handy, so used that)
- 200g cherries, stoned
- Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Season the pigeons all over and in the cavities with salt and pepper, then divide the garlic, rosemary and thyme among the cavities. Truss the legs together with kitchen string.
Heat 2 large well-seasoned, ovenproof sauté or frying pans over a medium-high heat, then add a good splash of olive oil. When it is hot, add the pigeons and colour all over for 3 minutes. Add the butter and when it is foaming, baste the birds.
Transfer the pans to the oven and roast the pigeons for 6 minutes for pink meat. Remove the pans from the oven, un-truss the birds and tip the juices from all the cavities into one of the pans, then set the birds aside to rest, covered with kitchen foil, while you finish make the sauce.
Remove the excess fat from the pan with a kitchen paper, then return it to the heat. Add the wine and port, stirring to deglaze the pan, and boil until the liquid largely evaporates. Add the game stock and continue boiling to reduce it by half, then stir in the cherries. Reduce the heat and simmer until the fruit is soft. Lightly whisk in the knob of butter, and adjust the seasoning.
Serve the pigeons with cherry sauce and a green vegetable side.
Sometimes, pigeons are supplied with much of the leg removed. If your pigeons are like that, don't worry about trussing, but do make sure your herbs stay in the birds while you handle them.