Harvest is here and pigeon is plentiful. Tim Maddams explains how to roast it and, inspired by a new book, shares his recipe for pigeon in a peppercorn sauce
Everyone has a favourite, mine is pigeon. Shooting them, eating them, thinking about shooting them, thinking about eating them, generally admiring them, reading about them, reading about shooting them… you get the idea. I am a self-confessed pigeon addict. I have never tried to give it up, but I know I couldn’t. These birds are special and their story is closely linked to agriculture.
Pigeon in times past
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the woodpigeon is a bird of the woodlands — no degree in biology required to work that one out. For centuries it has survived in the woodlands, eking out a living from nature’s bounty, with many birds dying off in the winter when food is scarce and only the strong surviving.
Then, in the 1970s, oilseed rape was introduced as a crop and grew rapidly in popularity until it became a common sight. What was probably only realised by a few at the time was the corresponding explosion in the population of the woodpigeon as it adapted to take advantage of this abundant winter food source. Pigeon are now considered the number one agricultural pest in the UK and, as most readers of Shooting Times will be aware, are shot in their millions every year under general licence for crop protection.
Young bird, best roast
We can’t all be cracking Shots and as long as you always strive to be better, shoot within your limits, stay safe and care about what you are doing that is fine. But even with my wonky shooting, I still manage to bag a fair number of these tasty birds over the summer stubbles when the decoys work their magic and this results in a glut of pigeon to be eaten. Happy days!
I never tire of eating pigeon and am constantly tinkering with recipes for a variety of dishes. The younger birds at the beginning of the summer get plucked and roasted. They are well worth the effort – roasting them whole draws the flavour from the bones. Whole birds are best roasted in a pan on the stove top. Begin with them on their backs and season well, cook in a little butter, or bacon fat if you have it. I always keep the fat from roasted meat joints to use for cooking other things — it saves waste and improves flavour.
When they are brown on the backs, repeat on each side and then flip on to the breasts for a minute or two. Return them to their backs, add a few bay leaves and some bashed garlic before sliding them into a very hot oven for four or five minutes. Once they come out, let them rest in the pan, off the heat, for at least 10 minutes.
Older birds, or a larger bag (I wish!), all get breasted out. These little chunks of heaven are a wonderful replacement for steak, and they make the best burgers in the world if minced with equal parts of chopped, smoked, dry-cured streaky bacon. Kebabs, sausage rolls, sautés, stroganoff — I have done it all. Once the blackberries get going, fried pigeon breasts finished with wild chanterelles and blackberries is exceptionally hard to beat. But do not overcook the meat; overcooked pigeon breast is not only a crime against these wonderful birds but results in a flavour akin to school dinner liver. And no one wants that.
Old bird, new tricks
I was at an agricultural show in Lancashire recently where I met a nice chap named Andrew Parkinson who is the executive chef at the Zédel brasserie in London. He gave me its latest book Brasserie Zédel: Traditions and Recipes from a Grand Brasserie (Quadrille Publishing, ISBN 9781849494670), which is written by A. A. Gill and very good it is too. Inside is a recipe for steak hache, sauce au poivre — that’s a burger to you and me, with peppercorn sauce. It reminded me of a dish I used to make when I was a much younger chef in London working under Marco Pierre White, another fine shooting man, and I thought that I may be able to replicate it with pigeon.
Pigeon burgers in a peppercorn sauce recipe
For the pigeon burgers
- 8 pigeon breasts, minced
- 80g minced pork fat, ideally back fat
Allow 2 breasts, plus 20g minced pork fat per burger. If you don’t have the fat, you can use pork mince but it’s the fat you want ideally.
- 1 sprig fresh thyme, chopped
For the peppercorn sauce
- 1 dessert spoon butter
- 1 small onion, very finely chopped
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns, lightly curshed in a pestle and mortar
- 1 dessert spoon flour
- Handful of chopped flatleaf parsley
- 1 glass good white wine
- 4 dessert spoons Worcester sauce
- Half pint chicken, beef or pork stock (or better still, pigeon stock)
- Season the meat mixture with half the thyme, salt and pepper and shape into burger shapes — I do this using an upside-down pastry cutter. Allow the burgers to set in the fridge for an hour or two so they will hold their shape while cooking.
- To make the sauce, melt the butter in a sauce pan and begin cooking the onion, add the pepper and as the onion softens, add the Worcester sauce and cook away until almost dry, but be careful not to burn it. Then add half a glass of white wine and repeat the process until you have hardly any liquid left at all. Turn down the heat and add the flour. Whisk in the stock a little at a time and add the rest of the thyme, simmer gently for 15 minutes and taste — add salt if it needs it and more pepper if it’s not peppery enough for you.
- Cook your burgers in a hot frying pan until just done — a hint of pinkness is best in the middle if you can manage it — letting them rest for a few minutes.
- Serve them with the sauce and chopped parsley to finish, and French fries or chips. Nothing else will do. Bon appetit!