Pigeon English

It may not have the pedigree of its expensive French cousin, but please don't overlook our native wood pigeon - it really ruffles Simon Hopkinson's feathers
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Recently, the allure of our indigenous wood pigeon seems to have become so overlooked that I am almost close to feeling sorry for it. And before I continue further, this simple, innocent creature must, most definitely, always now be referred to as "wood pigeon" and not be confused with its close cousin, the dove (oh yes it is!), squab, or pigeonneau, as the French call it. The pigeonneau is a particularly handsome, plump bird, especially bred to super-tenderness purely for the tables of the very discerning - and with a price to match.

Recently, the allure of our indigenous wood pigeon seems to have become so overlooked that I am almost close to feeling sorry for it. And before I continue further, this simple, innocent creature must, most definitely, always now be referred to as "wood pigeon" and not be confused with its close cousin, the dove (oh yes it is!), squab, or pigeonneau, as the French call it. The pigeonneau is a particularly handsome, plump bird, especially bred to super-tenderness purely for the tables of the very discerning - and with a price to match.

Possibly for this reason alone, the super-dove-pigeon so far remains a rarity, but time will tell. I have yet to see it for sale in any British supermarket, but when one considers that this single-portion roasting bird would possibly cost upwards of £5 to £6 apiece, this is hardly surprising. Naturally, you can buy them at any time you choose in even the smallest small-town supermarket in France, such as Casino, for example (the equivalent of our Costcutter or Londis - such attractive appellations). } But, of course, they are happy to shell out, the French. Not every day, not even every week, but this pricey pigeonneau sells because it tastes very good indeed. In that country, expensive fine food continues, as always, to be considered something special. Here, it is usually regarded as overpriced. And that, as they say, is that.

But we will dwell no longer on this aristocrat of pigeons, however delicious it might be - and, let me assure you, it most certainly is - as it might give my humble, cooing commoner a huge inferiority complex, not to mention what it might do to the average British consumers and their food-shopping priorities. In my present mood, I could now go into the lemming-like stupidity of those obsessed with anything "organic" (and yes, before you shriek, some of it is very good indeed), who gaily pick up packets of limp carrots and tasteless oranges and pay a fortune into the bargain. But I won't. Not today, that is ...

Although this simple, forever dull-grey-feathered scavenger may never have been regarded as one of nature's finest game birds (of late, however, I have begun to wonder whether the prefix "game" is any longer a true one, but more of that later) it has, nevertheless, long been associated with these islands as an easy and cheap source of - for want of a better description, and none the worse for being cheap (about a quid each) - tasty bird meat.

And, incidentally, I don't know about you, but hearing the particular pigeon who leads the inaugural coo in the tree outside my sitting room window on the first warm early morning of late spring remains, without doubt, } my favourite birdsong - if you can call it a "song", that is (curiously, west London doesn't seem to attract that many blackbirds, nightingales or hooting owls these days). Although I now worry that the alarming growth of the colony of cheeky grey squirrels will eventually unsettle them from their traditional perches, incessantly scampering about as they do. I wouldn't mind so much, but squirrels don't coo terribly well.

Given the choice, of course, I wouldn't necessarily choose to eat this particular local bird as its metropolitan diet will, I feel sure, be a little lacking on the goodness front. My cats, on the other hand, become impossibly excited simply by looking through the window at it, chattering and visibly slobbering at the very thought of carefully killing it; I whisper "squirrel" to them when they do this. Wood pigeon though it may be, the dusty trees of Shepherd's Bush do not exactly a "wood" make.

The prefix is a real one. In other words, it is the wild pigeon fluttering in and out of country woods that I am talking about here. But, as I mentioned earlier, apropos the "game" question, I was genuinely surprised to discover recently quite how these simple-minded birds had managed to find - and store up in their crops for later digestion - such a quantity of pristine corn kernels. Each one was packed full.

Well, whatever, they tasted very good indeed and were a great deal more tender than some I care to remember. But then pheasants have become more and more tender over the last 15 years or so too, and they sport even more gargantuan, corn-stuffed crops; sadly, at worst, most now taste of almost nothing at all. So, please don't (over) feed the pigeons.

Wood pigeon breasts and chicken livers with rice and peas

Serves 2

It is a good idea to cook this in a pot that is also suitable to serve from at table. A lidded Le Creuset, or similar, would therefore be ideal. It is not necessary to serve anything else at all with this dish.

1tbsp olive oil

25g butter

4 rashers rindless streaky bacon, chopped

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

4 wood pigeon breasts, cut in half

8 fresh chicken livers, trimmed of all raggedy bits and cut in half

250g basmati rice

4 heaped tbsp tinned (preferably) or frozen peas

375ml chicken stock

2 pieces pithless lemon peel

salt and pepper

1 heaped tbsp chopped mint

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/gas mark 5. Heat the olive oil and butter, and add the bacon. Gently fry until lightly coloured and then add the onions and garlic. Cook together until the onions and garlic have also taken on a little colour. Stir in the pigeon and livers, allow to stiffen slightly, then incorporate the rice. Mingle everything together while paying particular attention to coating the grains of rice with fat.

Pour in the stock and bring up to a simmer. Add the peas, stock, lemon peel and seasoning. Bring to the boil, put on the lid, and cook in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven but don't take off the lid for a further 5 minutes; this allows the rice to finish cooking. Remove the lid, deftly fluff up the rice with a fork - which will release clouds of steam - while also mixing in the mint. Then cover with a folded tea towel, clamp on the lid once more, and leave for a further 5 minutes. This final trick will reveal the finest savoury pot of rice you ever did see: each and every grain of rice separate and emitting an aroma most intoxicating.

Salmis of wood pigeon

Serves 2

This is cooked en salmis. Roast the bird until almost cooked through and remove the meat from the carcass. Chop and crush up the latter, make a rich sauce from it with wine and/or spirit, strain the result back over the carved bird, and braise very quietly until meltingly tender and deeply savoury.

26-30g softened butter

1 small onion, peeled and cut horizontally into 4 thick slices

2 wood pigeons, dressed, with giblets

salt and pepper

4 rashers of streaky bacon

For the salmis

the pigeon giblets, chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

1 large stick celery, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 flat black mushroom, chopped

a generous slug of Cognac

scant 1/2tbsp flour

75ml port

200ml red wine

2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

a few juniper berries, bruised

2 cloves

1/2tbsp redcurrant jelly

salt and pepper

2 thick slices of white bread, crusts removed, each cut into triangles and fried in olive oil until crisp

a little chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 425°F/ 220°C/gas mark 7. Greasethe base of a small roasting tin with a little butter, and place the four onion slices in the middle. Arrange the pigeons on top of these, smear with a little more butter and season. Lay the bacon slices on top (primarily to flavour the sauce later, and lubricate the birds) and roast in the oven for about 15 minutes. Remove the bacon and chop into bits. Leave the birds to cool.

To make the sauce, fry the giblets in some of the roasting fats, using a heavy-based cooking pot. Once these are nicely crusted, add the carrot, celery, garlic and mushroom, together with the onions that were underneath the cooked pigeons. Stew everything together gently for 10 minutes. Add the bacon and turn up the heat. Add the Cognac, allow it to boil away, stir in the flour and allow to cook through for a few minutes. Add the remaining ingredients (eight in all, from the flour to the redcurrant jelly) and stir together, feeling around with the spoon to lift off any crusted bits from the base of the pot. Bring to a simmer and skim off the resultant scum that appears on the surface.

Using a small, sharp knife, carefully carve the breast and legs from the pigeons, making four neat halves. Put them into a wide, shallow pan, preferably in one layer. Set aside. Chop up the carcasses with a heavy knife or cleaver and add to the sauce. Top up with a little cold water (or, better, some chicken stock that you might have handy) just to cover the bones, and then continue to simmer for a further 30-40 minutes.

Taste to see that the flavour is good and full, then strain the lot through a colander, suspended over another pan. Leave to drip for a few minutes, then pass the result through a fine sieve over the carved pigeon. Cook uncovered on a low light, basting the meat with the sauce from time to time, until it has reduced and thickened to the consistency of a fine, smooth gravy. Briefly submerge just one edge of each of the croutons into the sauce and then into the chopped parsley. This is the traditional garnish for a salmis and, indeed, for a properly made coq au vin. Plainly boiled, lightly buttered potatoes, I guess.

Simple roast wood pigeon (on a slice of puff-ball mushroom, if to hand)

Serves 2

I guess that puff-ball mushrooms might well be petering out by the time you read this. But no matter - think about it for next year's crop. Alternatively, use two large, flat black mushrooms and remove the stalks. The general idea is that while the pigeons cook, a good deal of their roasting juices soak into the fungus which, as you might imagine, is a very good thing indeed.

2 plump wood pigeons, dressed

salt and pepper

a little softened butter

6 thin rashers of rindless, very thin streaky bacon (pancetta, for preference)

2 thick slices of puff-ball mushroom, or 2 large, flat black mushrooms, stalks removed

a squeeze of lemon juice

a splash of Cognac or Armagnac (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/gas mark 6. Smear the pigeons with a little butter, and season inside and out. Wrap 3 slices of bacon around each bird. Coat the bottom of an oven-proof dish with a little more butter, place the puff-ball slices/mushrooms in the dish and lightly season them. Put a pigeon on top of each fungus and slide into the oven. Basting frequently, roast for 25-30 minutes, or until the breasts, when tweaked between thumb and forefinger, have the consistency of a shelled hard-boiled egg. While the dish is still all a-sizzle, douse with the chosen spirit (if using) and set alight with a match. Once the flames have subsided, remove any trussing strings and leave the pigeons to rest for 10 minutes, loosely covered with foil, before eating. Creamed potatoes and peas, I reckon, don't you?

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