On the plate, pigeon is certainly not humble. Top chefs explain to Ewan Davy why pigeon is the best meat - and how they are getting it on the menu
Often overlooked, pigeon is far from humble on the plate. Inexpensive, lean, sustainable and – above all – absolutely delicious, Ewan Davy hears why top chefs count pigeon as their favourite meat, and how we should all cook it this spring.
For pigeon recipe inspiration, look through The Field’s website. Woodpigeon sausage rolls are a long-time favourite and great place to start. Try our warm pigeon breast salad and spring onions, or for something a little more comforting, give our pigeon pie a go.
WHY WE SHOULD COOK PIGEON
Long a favourite among the ancient Egyptians – both as a carrier of vital messages and as a meal – the humble pigeon can be found in art dating as far back as 2,900BC. From the Middle Ages, the dovecote became a common sight in mainland Europe; an outbuilding on estates, considered by their owners to be a ‘living pantry’. In harder times, pigeon, alongside rabbit, was a staple. Today, the woodpigeon can be found throughout the UK. A scourge to farmers but loved by many sportsmen, it has a mixed reputation – though not on the plate. Taste-wise, many consider it one of our finest ‘gamebirds’ and it can be found on many exclusive menus.
Opinions are divided on the best time to eat pigeon. Michel Roux Jr, who runs the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche restaurant, believes that although pigeon can be eaten throughout the year, its rich flavour lends itself to the cooler months.
Nick Weston, founder of Hunter Gather Cook, a foraging and cookery school that specialises in game butchery and outdoor cookery, believes that spring is good but autumn is best, when they revert to a much wilder diet.
Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, who runs the Lympstone Manor overlooking the Exe estuary in Devon, holds that pigeon should be celebrated throughout the year but in different ways. Over the summer months, Caines favours a salad of woodpigeon breast with hazelnuts, mangetout and apple as a starter. At other times of the year he prefers serving pigeon breast with a rosti galette and madeira sauce. In spring, he uses pea purée as an accompaniment, changing this to wild mushrooms and asparagus from late April into mid-June, sweet corn purée at the end of summer and kale cooked down with bacon and garlic in the colder months. He also serves his pigeon pithivier, best described as a pigeon Wellington, where the breast is wrapped in a mousse of mushroom and truffle within puff pastry, which is baked in the oven.
Mike Robinson, who is due to open The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon this month, claims to have cooked more than 170,000 breasts of pigeon in his time, and estimates that he serves in excess of 300 pigeon breasts a week, cooked on a charcoal grill and wood-fired oven. For him, pigeon salad is a favourite, where he sears the breast in a pan with a little butter and oil for 90 seconds on each side, flashes it in the oven for a minute, then deglazes with sherry vinegar until it goes sticky. He rests the breast for two minutes, carves and serves with seared, crumbled black pudding, super-smoky little bacon lardons and crumbled shallots on top.
THE BEST OF SUSTAINABLE GAME
Arguably, woodpigeon represents the best of sustainable game: readily available year-round and in good numbers. It’s lean, inexpensive, rich in iron and is a great source of protein. It’s also quick to cook, dresses beautifully as a starter or a main course, and works beautifully in salads, stews and slow-braised in a game pie.
Many Field readers can, of course, harvest their own pigeon and it’s worth remembering their value. While professional chefs can purchase a breast for around 75p and a carcass for between £1.50 and £2, most game dealers will offer the general public dressed carcasses at around £2.40 to £2.50, and breasts for upwards of 80p.
The Dorset Game Larder currently offers a pack of two dressed pigeon carcasses at £4.90 and a pack of six breasts for £4.95. By comparison, the same dealer offers a dressed pheasant at £3.25 per carcass and charges £4.95 for a pack of four breasts.
The online Wild Meat Company offers boned and stuffed woodpigeon with a choice of gluten-free apricot and walnut or apricot, apple and ginger stuffing at £6.95 per bird, or £5.95 for a pack of four breasts; so it’s worth shopping around. And don’t forget to ask your local butcher, especially from September, when these plump birds become widely available having spent a summer on corn and other cereal crops.
Partly because it’s incredibly good value, but also because it’s tasty and surprisingly diverse, chefs adore pigeon. “Pigeon has something of a poor reputation,” says Caines. “It’s seen as a pest, especially in urban areas and, for many, it’s a meat that has links to tougher times; so there’s a stigma there. It’s our duty to reintroduce woodpigeon to the public; to help diners fall in love with a meat that’s tasty, healthy, sustainable, attractive on the plate and readily available. As chefs, we need to think of increasingly creative ways to tempt the tastebuds, whet the appetite and encourage more diners to fall in love with this wonderful source of protein.”
Michel Roux has long had a love affair with this versatile bird, stretching as far back as his childhood. “My father used to rear squab pigeons,” says Roux. “I grew up as a child in Kent helping him look after them. From a young age I learnt how to pluck and prepare them. I even used to give them names but it never put me off eating them. Pigeon is quite simply one of my favourite meats. I often order it when I eat out and it is regularly on our menus at Le Gavroche. I adore it lightly poached, grilled on the barbecue and accompanied with blackberry and pepper sauce. Sublime!”
WOODPIGEON VS SQUAB
For those chefs who prefer woodpigeon over squab, the diversity of its wild diet, which often includes berries, green crops, seeds, acorns and buds, provides a more complex earthy, woodland taste.
As Roux says: “Woodpigeon has bags of flavour and can be prepared in so many different ways. It can be roasted solo or paired with adventurous accompaniments, such as a lobster salad. As a dark meat it can take strong flavours and pairs well with good wines. It’s ideally suited for pies, pâté or broths.”
Weston, who takes wild game fans on a journey of discovery on his summer courses, treats pigeon as a star of his courses and banquets. “I love the fact that this great wild meat is available all year round,” he says. “It has no closed season and is a fantastic red meat that responds well to a huge range of ingredients. When cooked right, it gives fillet steak a run for its money.”
For consistency of size and tenderness, squab (young pigeon) wins the day for many chefs. Although Roux wouldn’t be drawn on his personal preference, he does believe that squab is the better for roasting and for special occasions.
Robinson argues that the two are wildly different ingredients: “Squab is a milder, softer ingredient, more like a piece of steak with beautiful fat on it. It’s the difference between a muntjac and fallow deer. I love them both. The squab is stunning; an amazing ingredient – although very expensive.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
While you don’t need to be a professional to cook woodpigeon, there are a few tricks worth knowing. For the uninitiated, a simple and delicious approach is to sear the boned breast rapidly for about a minute each side. Left to rest, this will be soft and succulent with the fine grain of a prime steak.
If you are grilling over fire, Weston advises to leave the breasts on the crown to keep them nice and moist. He takes the legs off to confit but goes even further, keeping the heart and livers for snacks and the body for stock.
Michel Roux’s top tip is: “Stick to the classic techniques, and always use butter.”
Caines advises to marinate the legs in a little bit of salt and pepper, tied in bay leaves, and then cook in fat.
Weston advises pairing pigeon with a good Malbec, but he also believes in using strong flavours to make the most of the bird: “Wild horseradish grated straight onto breasts works well, and sorrel is a beautiful, citrusy addition as it cuts nicely through the meat.”
Caines agrees: “As pigeon is a rich, dark meat, robust flavours really work. It’s great with lentils as a main course and it takes spice well – curry spice, in particular. Pigeon is also great for wine selections, especially good red wines; you’ve got a lot of flavours to work with.”
Whatever your personal preference, or indeed your culinary skills, the humble pigeon is quite definitely a surprise package that deserves a second look, so don’t turn down the chance to bag some this spring.