Before you leave this page in disgust, wait! I don’t mean the pigeons that congregate around church steeples and high rise building windows. I mean pigeons that have been raised for food, just like other birds such as quail, chicken and duck. A friend of mine has a connection to an Orthodox monastery which grows all its own food on the outskirts of Sydney and she very kindly supplied me with 4 beautiful pigeons from their farm. They come gutted but with their livers and also their heads, which might be a bit disconcerting to novice pigeon eaters.
Pigeons (or squab which are pigeons which haven’t yet fledged) are delicacies in many cuisines. The Chinese love to deep fry them so their skin crackles. They also cook them slowly in a red master stock and serve them cold, chopped up with a side of spicy cucumber salad. If you visit the south west of France you’ll see beautiful little dovecotes called pigeonniers dotted around the countryside and their presence reflects the importance of pigeons in the diet of that part of France. Italy too uses pigeons, braised, roasted or in the recipe below, as a soup.
This pigeon soup recipe comes originally from Marcella Hazan’s book, Marcella’s Kitchen. I’ve made it a number of times and I reckon the proportions of ingredients need amending to make it work as a soup but all the ingredients are the same as the original. The recipe is a very old one from the Veneto region, its name in dialect – sopa coada. While it’s not a difficult dish to make it actually takes quite a lot of cooking time as the birds are braised first, then boned, combined with bread and stock and then baked. It is a very rich dish, full of flavour and one of those things that you should make before the weather gets too warm to enjoy this kind of hearty food. You don’t really need anything else with this soup other than perhaps a leafy green salad to follow, and of course plenty of good red wine.
4 pigeons, heads and necks left on, cut in half lengthways, rinsed and dried
50ml olive oil
1 large carrot, very finely diced
2 sticks celery, very finely diced
1 large brown onion, very finely diced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
200ml dry white wine
100 g freshly grated parmesan cheese
8 large slices good Italian bread, cut 1cm thick
2 litres good quality chicken stock
In a large fry pan in which all the pigeons will fit heat 50g of the butter and 50ml of the olive oil on a moderate heat. Slip the pigeons in and brown all over, this will take a few minutes. Remove the pigeons to a plate, leaving the butter and oil behind. Add the onions, celery and carrot and cook slowly for about 10 minutes until they take on a little colour. Return the pigeons to the pan, increase the heat and pour over the wine, letting it bubble for a few minutes. Season with salt and a good amount of black pepper. Cover the pan with a lid or foil and braise the pigeons for about an hour and a half, or until the meat is coming off the bones. You’ll need to turn the pigeons every now and then and you may need to add a little water to stop them from sticking to the pan. I use a heat diffuser to help prevent burning.
Remove the pigeons from the pan. Discard the skin and pull all the meat off the bones, breaking it into small pieces as you go. Set aside the meat and add the vegetables from the pan to it, trying to leave as much of the flavoursome oil/butter mixture behind in the pan. Add the bones to the chicken stock and simmer gently for an hour to try to get as much flavour from them as possible. Strain the stock and set aside.
Add the rest of the butter and oil to the pan that you cooked the pigeons in and fry the bread slices on both sides until golden.
Take a deep casserole dish and butter the base. Lay four of the fried bread slices over the base and then cover with the pigeon meat and vegetables. Sprinkle over half of the parmesan cheese. Add the other four bread slices then pour over the stock. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan cheese.
Cover the casserole with foil and bake at 150C for 3 hours. The top of the soup should be nicely browned but if not, remove the foil, raise the oven temperature and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Serve the soup directly from the pot into large soup bowls, making sure everyone gets some bread, pigeon meat and stock. You could serve some additional parmesan cheese on the side but I don’t actually think you need it.