As they did the Hitchcock heroine, birds make me uneasy; they are fine in the trees and singing, far less pleasant close up. They are simply too different a species, and there's something wrong with a creature devoted solely to eating
On the matter of pigeons, I consider myself something of an expert, in that when we had our mill-house in Italy, we actually set about raising them for our own consumption. All our neighbours did, and a couple of pairs, we were told, would do very nicely. Were they not decorative? Was the sound of their cooing not melodic? And were they not edible? Off to the local market we went, pigeons we purchased, and a bag of grain. No problem. They soon settled in, fluttered, preened, fattened, bred.

No one was more pleased than our many mangy, affectionate, spirited and contemptuous cats, Nero, Negro, Noire, Chiorny et al. A few wired crates stood on top of the shed that was my study, and these the cats observed all day, awaiting any unwary moment. They were not very good hunters. They lived on scraps, were terrified of our toads, and, it turned out, equally so of the pigeons, who had but to flap at them furiously to make them flee.

In defence of our cats, let me add that we were little better at the task than they. As they did the Hitchcock heroine, birds make me uneasy; they are fine in the trees and singing, far less pleasant close up. They are simply too different a species, and there's something wrong with a creature devoted solely to eating. Nor, as we found out, do pigeons go readily to the slaughter, and after some months we abandoned our attempt at animal husbandry.

This did not mean that we stopped eating pigeons, but that sensibly we bought them, all nicely prepared, at the market.

Now those of you who live in big cities whose facades are spotted with droppings and whose early mornings are disturbed by the raucous sounds of city birds getting ready for their daily commute to whatever it is pigeons do all day, perhaps do not have a high opinion of this bird. This, I think, is a grave gastronomical mistake. Of all the smaller birds and fowl, it is the plumpest, tastiest and easiest to cook. Nor does it have the disadvantage of being entirely wild and therefore having to be shot on the wing. Like the guinea-fowl, it is easily domesticated.

Generally, it is eaten fairly young, as a squab, or nestling, but to my mind this is somewhat wasteful. Our pigeons were, when dressed, palm- sized, and one per person was sufficient. Despite protests from the ladies in the party, our pigeons were cooked whole; the heads, for some, are a delicacy in themselves, and were therefore firmly left on.

There are many ways of cooking pigeons. The easiest, by far, is the method we used in Italy, which was to roast them in a baking dish (small enough so that they are held quite close to each other) with a large amount of butter (I mean at least three full tbsps per bird) and a very generous portion of fresh rosemary. As pigeons vary greatly in size, the cooking time is an average of between 30 and 40 minutes in a hot, pre-heated oven. If basted occasionally, they emerge golden-brown (but not crisp) and delicious. Let me add that the resultant stock is one of the world's best for a risotto.

Somewhere in Perigord, I have forgotten where, though remember the meal exceedingly well, I was served, as a first course, a pigeon salad. The plump breasts were sliced thinnish, each slice was coated with foie gras and placed on a bed of frisee with a bit of fresh fennel, and the whole dressed with a sweet vinaigrette. Memorable.

If you want to go to extremes with these birds, you might want to try a classic dish which you can occasionally be served from the Veneto south to Emilia: stuffed baby pigeons in humido (gently stewed). The birds are stuffed with forcemeat (remove the skin from any good, plump, Italian sausage, especially an Emilian cotechino - pork meat and its, excuse me, testicles). First brown a bit of chopped celery and onion and two sage leaves in butter and oil, add your pigeons and brown another five minutes. Add a half-pint of dry white wine; cook for a further 15 minutes until the wine evaporates. Add skinned, pureed tomatoes and cook another five minutes. Then add mushrooms, previously soaked (saving the liquid they throw off) and stew slowly in enough water to cover, adding the mushroom liquid when the water reaches boiling point. Quite wonderful with wild rice

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