One of the few fully wild meats, pigeon is sustainable, delicious to eat and in plentiful supply at this time of year.
With the general licence debacle now sorted, it’s a good time of year on the pigeons. The corn has been cut, and the stubble in turn has been attracting a heavy show of birds, who would be only too pleased in the coming weeks to hit the cover that is to go in afterwards. It’s a good time to manage the numbers, and in the process harvest a sizeable quantity of jolly fine meat. So it was with a springy step of confidence that Adam and I set out for a spot of sport the other evening, and we weren’t disappointed.
I’m not really one for looking into too much detail at decoying patterns etc. Any pigeon decoyer seems to have their own method, but the one I follow is a simple one – dot a few decoys out on the field around 25 yards away from a basic hide – and wait. It was a fine evening, with the standard Exmoor south westerly crossing the line in front of us. The birds were behaving, coming in gentle streams of two or three, and a couple of hours later, we had a decent bag of 40 or so, albeit aided by some deadly accuracy from Rod, the ‘keepers father. We won’t be mentioning the shell count, having had a few months off. But what finer way to hone the sport; with the game season looming just weeks away, we were presented with simulations of high, straight-up driven pheasants, low and speedy grouse, crossing partridges and dropping duck. The best thing it can do for you, as another ‘keeper friend and renowned shot always reminds me, is make you read the line of the bird – and no matter what you end up shooting, it is this, he maintains, that makes the difference.
What interests me more, however, is the bonus supply of meat. One of the few fully wild meats we can harvest, pigeon is one of the most sustainable options we can eat, and as anyone familiar with it will agree, is completely delicious to boot! It has good texture and bags of flavour, meaning it’s a great candidate for a bit of home smoking. I know home smoking can be a little daunting, but if we start with hot smoking, it really couldn’t be simpler. As long as you have a decent metal container – I use a cast iron Dutch oven, but a roasting tin or casserole dish with a few layers of foil will serve just as well (I’ve even used a biscuit tin in the past) – and a wire rack of the cake making ilk, you will be away. Follow the recipe and tips, and you’re in for a smoky treat.
Adam and I stopped off on the way back from shooting to see if we could forage a few treats to complement the dishes the following day. I served the Pichoide spread thickly on sourdough toast, with a tart little dressing made from a handful of whortleberries reduced with a little sugar and vinegar, and garnished with a couple of iron-salty sea herbs. It made for an elegant little lunchtime starter, but it is equally delicious simply served as a pre dinner dip; beetroot or root vegetable crisps being the best apparatus.
6 pigeon breasts
1 handful of woodchips
Sprinkle the salt and sugar over the pigeon breasts and leave in a non metallic container for 1 hour.
Rinse the breasts in cold water and pat dry.
Place the woodchips in the bottom of your smoking container (as above) and place on a medium heat.
Lay the pigeon on top of the smoking racks and, as soon as the chips start to smoke, place the racks in your container.
Place the lid on top and leave for 10-15 minutes, until the pigeon is just cooked through.
‘Smoked Pichoide’ or Smoked Pigeon Anchoide
The first dish you may find somewhat peculiar. It is. But do not be daunted, it is nonetheless delicious. Based on the Provencal Anchoide, a sort of anchovy mayonnaise, this ‘Pichoide’ as I have rather tenuously mashed up, it is one of the simplest yet richest and most decadent dishes going. Think meaty taramasalata… countryman’s caviar if you please!
6 smoked pigeon breasts, cold
1 large clove of garlic
1 heaped tsp English mustard
Large pinch each of salt and pepper
1. Whizz the pigeon and garlic in the food processor until completely broken down.
2. Add the mayonnaise, salt, pepper and mustard and whizz once more until completely smooth. If you can, allow to sit in the fridge for an hour before serving for the flavours to mix.
Smoked pigeon Spanish stew
A smoky Spanish stew straight off the Andalusian plains, this dish is about as rustic as it comes. The smoked elements of the paprika, chorizo and pigeon harmonising with the sweet and garlicy tomatoes is a rural Spanish evening in a pot, and talking of pots, it has the added bonus of being a one pot wonder, which given my rather lacklustre washing up work ethic, is perhaps the biggest bonus of all!
1 large Spanish onion, finely sliced
6 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp sugar
500g tinned chopped tomatoes
8 smoked pigeon breasts, cut in half
2 red peppers chopped into large chunks
2 tins butter beans
2 handfuls of leafy greens
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Fry the onion and peppers gently in plenty of olive oil.
2. When completely soft, add the garlic and fry for a further minute.
3. Add the smoked paprika, sugar, tomatoes, white wine and pigeon and simmer gently for 30-40 minutes.
4. Add the greens five minutes before serving.
5. Serve alongside some decent crusty bread, with a generous glug of olive oil atop.
Perfect wine pairings
Adam Holden, from Berry Bros. & Rudd, suggests the best wines to accompany this issue’s recipes
Tom’s ‘Pichoiade’ is an interesting take on the Provencal dish anchoiade and, like its inspiration, it has a salty note and bags of umami in the earthy, livery meat and oak smoke. The nature of the dish as a dip or a starter makes me inclined to pair a white, but it can’t be a shrinking violet. I’ve selected the 2018 Craven, Clairette Blanche, Stellenbosch, South Africa (£18.50 bbr.com) for its waxy texture and smoky, ‘mineral’ note. Mick and Jeanine Craven are a particularly impressive part of South Africa’s exciting new wave of wine makers. Complete commitment to the environment, sustainable methods and the best vineyards are at the heart of their brilliant wines. The Clairette offers a little wink to the origins of Tom’s dish as well; since it is most often found in the South of France.
Tom’s base for the casserole could be the base for any number of great Spanish estofados but the addition of the smoky pigeon and cooking over an open fire makes this gloriously rustic and satisfying. I’m putting the old and new Spain head-to- head here. The Berry Bros. & Rudd Rioja Crianza by Amezola (£12.95 bbr.com) is emphatically traditional, oak age bringing vanilla and sweet spice to the fore and bringing earthy dried fruits and wild strawberries through the ageing for an enticing and moreish wine. The mouthful which is Mestizaje from Bodega Mustiguillo (£14.95 bbr.com) hails from Valencia, which is developing an impressive reputation for quality from high vineyards of old vines. Bobal, which makes the lion’s share of the blend here, is a native grape of the region and perfectly suited to the conditions. This is full of juicy fruit, luscious and decadent! But thanks to a firm undertone of earthiness, leather and cocoa it keeps coming with plenty to keep us interested. In my view nothing short of a triumph, rather like Tom’s delicious dishes.
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