Wood pigeon is a small game bird but represents the best of sustainable, locally sourced meat
Plentiful all year round, wild wood pigeon has long featured on progressive restaurant menus. This little game bird fits in perfectly with our growing appetite for sustainable, locally sourced meat. Although farmers see wood pigeons as pests, because they feed abundantly on their fledgling crops, chefs fully appreciate their potential on the plate.
But you don’t need to be a pro to cook wood pigeon. Rapidly seared (a minute each side) and then rested, soft, succulent boned breast has the fine grain of a prime steak, but thanks to the diversity of its wild diet (seeds, acorns, buds, berries, green crops) it has a more complex earthy, woodland taste. As for the legs, cooked for 2-3 hours at a low temperature, under a layer of olive oil or perhaps duck fat, they make a deeply flavoursome confit that falls obligingly off the bone. The boned carcase, of course, makes fantastic stock.
Why is wood pigeon good for me?
Wood pigeon is a great source of satisfying protein, which helps your body repair cells and make new ones. One breast per person is enough for a starter, and two make a reasonable main course. The meat has a rich store of beneficial minerals, in particular iron, which is crucial for energy production and a robust immune system. To avoid dental disasters, chew gingerly at first: occasionally, a tiny pellet of lead shot may be buried in the meat.
Where to buy and what to pay
Wood pigeon is a steal. You’ll find young, fresh birds at a traditional butcher’s that deals in game from local shoots, or at game stalls in farmers’ markets. Guide prices: pack of 10 breasts £8, or £2‑£2.30 for a whole bird.
• Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Spatchcock wood pigeon with bitterleaf, orange and walnut salad
100ml orange juice
5 tbsp (75ml) olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 sprig of thyme
A good pinch of ground cinnamon
A good pinch of ground allspice
4 wood pigeons, washed and dried, backbones removed and breasts flattened
2 large oranges, peeled and segmented
1 red onion, finely diced
½ tbsp wine or cider vinegar
2 heads of chicory, sliced in half lengthways and then sliced into lengths
A small bunch of chives, chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 In a flat dish that will fit the birds snugly, mix the orange juice, 1 tbsp of oil, the garlic, thyme, spices and salt and pepper. Immerse the birds and marinate for at least an hour, turning occasionally.
2 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. While it heats up, toast the walnuts on an oven tray. When they have a little colour, tip them on to a chopping board, wipe the oven tray, and return it to the oven to get hot, ready for the pigeon.
3 Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Add the pigeons, skin-side down. The pigeons should be evenly flattened to create a flat piece made up of two breasts and two legs.
4 Fry for 2 minutes, then turn and cook for another 2 minutes. Lift out of the pan and put on the hot oven tray, breast side up, to roast for 8 minutes.
5 Add the marinade to the pan. Reduce until slightly thickened and set aside.
6 For the salad, toss the oranges and onion in a bowl with the vinegar, salt and pepper. Roughly chop the walnuts, add the chicory, chives and remaining oil and mix. Season to taste.
7 Remove the pigeons from the oven to a warm plate, pour over the marinade and set in a warm place for 5 minutes.
8 Pile the salad on to the plates, cut the pigeons in half along the breastbone and arrange on top with a spoonful of sauce. Serve with good bread for the juices.