Pigeon in the Pot
Without a doubt, pigeon is one of those animals that provokes the fiercest culinary debate. Some love it, some hate it; some do it rare, some well done. There isn’t a single young chef who doesn’t serve it in little parcels, which in the end adds up to about 50 grams of actual meat. But it does have a firm foothold in the more “traditional” restaurants and the old-school cooking methods: spit-roasted, stewed, casseroled, or even in clay pots. Anyway, you get the point. The pigeon question is a serious thing.
There are three categories of pigeon. The wild pigeon (Columba livia), better known as the wood pigeon, is a habitual migrant; more importantly, it lends itself very well to the table after some long, slow cooking. The feral pigeon is the species that we’re all used to seeing in the town squares: their personal hygiene has much to be desired, and are totally unfit for human consumption. Finally, we have the domestic pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia domestica), which used to be bred for ornamental or communication purposes – this breed makes the best carrier pigeons. Today, they are used pretty much solely in the kitchen, as they can be consumed safely with a few basic sanitary precautions.
Pigeons are rather particular birds – even sentimental birds, I might suggest. They mate for life, and in the search for their lifelong partner they spend a lot of time cooing. That’s how they attract a member of the opposite sex.
But what we’re concerned with here is the use of pigeon meat. As I’ve written a number of times, I don’t approach tradition with an unflinching reverence: today’s innovation might well be tomorrow’s custom (emphasis on the word might). When we talk about cooking pigeon, the first distinction needs to be whether we’re talking about professional or home cooking.
Chefs love working with pigeon, and throughout history they’ve done it great justice: so many wonderful dishes have come from this bird. But I’m going to focus on humbler, homelier fare, where pigeon is very often served on holy days and festivals.
For my money, no spit roast is complete without the big, robust flavour of a pigeon: just cook it low and slow, with a leaf of sage, then serve it on a nice hunk of bread. Or you could stew it in the pot, in red wine and olives. Grilling should be approached with caution: too fierce a heat will make it bitter and unpleasant on the tongue and nose. Again, a long, low heat is what you need: the taste will take you to places you’d never dreamed of.
A nice rustic dish is whole wheat pappardelle pasta in a pigeon (or wood pigeon) ragù, which is guaranteed to take you to new realms of sensory delight. A risotto would turn the pigeon to slightly subtler, but no less pleasurable ends. Or you might decide to stuff some tortelli with it: you only need a bit of butter and parmesan, and there you have it – a delicious Sunday lunch. And if it’s one of the more indulgent festivals? Then it really calls for a grating of white truffle!