Perhaps because they are so common and therefore (relatively) so cheap, the wood pigeon is a grievously underrated bird, with a flavour all its own. More interesting than venison, less extreme than hare, sweeter than much of the wild duck family, for me the pigeon is definitely the poor man’s grouse. They do need careful cooking, though, as like all game birds they are lean, muscular and fit – unlike our soft and nambypamby chickens – so tend to dry out very easily. The trick is (as always with lean meat) to cook at a high temperature for a short time, and then let sit quietly in a warm place for 10–15 minutes – if not longer. The ‘warm place’ must be hot enough to preserve the bird’s temperature, but not so hot that it carries on cooking. In a restaurant the best place is under the cast-iron plate that sits in the centre of the salamander – the overhead grill, where there is plenty of room and, as it’s usually sited above the stove, surrounded by indirect heat.
Chefs in restaurants who cook on the meat section – known as the sauce section for some reason – often let their delicate cuts rest at the side of the stove, and then ‘flash’ them under the salamander before sending them to the restaurant. The trouble with this is that if they have lost heat from the centre, ‘flashing’ won’t bring it back again.
With poultry shears or a pair of sharp scissors, cut the backs out of the pigeons, leaving the legs in place, and chop them roughly. Heat the butter in a frying pan and when the foam subsides toss the bones and vegetables (and gizzards, hearts and livers if you have them) until they are lightly browned. Remove to a small saucepan, add the garlic, bouquet garni and orange peel. Pour in the wine and the stock (for preference) or water. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 25 minutes.
Season the pigeon breasts with salt and pepper. In the same frying pan, adding a little more butter if necessary, cook the pigeons for about 1 minute each side over a high heat, then remove to a roasting dish and put in the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, take out and keep warm. Meanwhile, in a smallish heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the sugar over a moderate heat, watching it carefully as it gradually forms a pale golden brown, starts to smoke gently, and then, as bubbles form, a darker brown. This will take little more than about 3 minutes. At this stage the brown liquid will start to smoke more heavily. Cover your hand with a cloth, pour in the vinegar, and remove from the heat. When the liquid stops bubbling, strain on the stock (made with the bones, above) and orange and lemon juice, season lightly with salt and reduce to about 125ml. Mix the cornflour with the Grand Marnier or Curaçao and stir in. Cook until the sauce has thickened. Cut each pigeon in half along the breastbone, lay back to back on 4 hot plates, and pour over the sauce. Garnish with blanched, shredded orange rind if you like.
Serve with potato and spring onion cakes cooked in duck fat and a plain green vegetable.
Potato cakes are mashed potato and finely chopped spring onions, seasoned, formed into cakes, rolled in flour, and fried. They can be made and cooked ahead – warm them up in the same oven.
© 2001 Stephen Bull. All rights reserved.