Fair Game

Published Gloucestershire Echo Weekend Supplement 13/12/2008


The dawn chorus outside my apartment window in not a source of joy, nor the happy announcement of another beautiful day.  It is in fact a moment that triggers avicidal tendencies.  Were it not for the want of a suitable weapon my matinal routine would start with the armed disposal of an infernal pigeon that wakes me every morning, cooing like some lovesick dove on amphetamines. 


Trust me I have been sorely tempted, and whilst I bear this particular pigeon no end of malice I can, hand on heart, tell you that its relatives have given me immense pride and pleasure.  The roast wood pigeon, parsnip purée, cassis sauce and coffee foam dish I cooked during the Masterchef final was very well received, and has become a firm dinner party favourite ever since.


Wood pigeons are superb game birds but are often overlooked in favour of partridge, pheasant and grouse. Perhaps they don’t have the same glamorous appeal of their larger cousins but they do have much to recommend them; their season is longer, they are cheaper, take no time to cook and most of all are exceptionally tasty.  The best ones are earthy and rich with an underlying sweetness.  They also happen to be more readily available than you think. But don’t on your next trip to the National Potrait Gallery, think of popping down to Trafalgar Square for a Tarantinoesque orgy of pigeon culling as a) it wouldn’t go down too well with the little kiddies/the local plod, b) they are wrong genus: Rock Pigeons, not Wood Pigeons and c) the National Express drivers get a bit crotchety when you pop your bloodied bag of game in the overhead locker on the trip back to Gloucestershire. Most good butchers will be able to source them for you and you can expect to pay £1.75-£2.50 a bird. Allow one bird per person.


Ornithologists look away now here comes the recipe.


Roast breast of wood pigeon, parsnip purée, cassis pan juices

(This is a pared down version of the dish I mentioned above)


4 dumpy parsnips
30g butter
60ml chicken stock
120ml milk
8 pigeon breasts

Olive oil

4 juniper berries crushed

A sprig of thyme

1 tbsp of sherry vinegar

200ml of chicken stock

Cassis de Dijon to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


In advance

1.Place the pigeon breasts, a dash of olive oil, juniper berries and thyme in a freezer bag.  Seal the bag; massage the ingredients gently to mix and place in the fridge for up to 24-48 hours.


2.Remove the cores from the parsnips as these can become mealy, cut into a small dice of around 0.5cm.  Sweat in a pan over a very gentle heat for 10-15 minutes until they begin to soften.  Add 100ml of chicken and cook until absorbed and the parsnips are completely softened – you may need to add a little more stock. 

3.Take the pan off the heat and add a little of the milk and purée with a hand blender until smooth, continue adding milk until you achieve the desired consistency – similar to very sloppy mashed potato. Season and set aside until needed.


On the day

4. Remove the pigeon from the fridge and season..

Pre-heat the oven to 220c.  Place a heavy based oven proof frying pan on a high heat, pour a little olive oil into the pan. When almost smoking add the pigeon breasts and quickly sear each side. 

5.Transfer the pan to the oven a cook for 4-5 minutes for rare, 5-6 minutes for medium and 7-8 minutes for well done.

6.In the meantime reheat the parsnip purée    Remove the pan from the oven and place the pigeon breasts in a warm place to rest for 7-8minutes. 


7.Tip any excess oil from the pan, place on the hob over a high heat; deglaze the pan the sherry vinegar, cook until almost evaporated add 50ml of chicken stock and scrap the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.  Reduce by half, add 1.5 tbsp of cassis and reduce to a thin syrup consistency. Taste and add more cassis if required. Remove from the heat. 

8.Spoon the parsnip purée onto warmed plates, place the 2 pigeon breast onto each plate and spoon over the cassis pan juices.  Winter greens would make a nice side dish.


Top tip

Game birds have very lean meat; this short cooking time won’t dry out the meat or make it tough so long as you rest the meat.  Resting allows the natural juices to slowly disperse back into the fibres of the breasts resulting in a juicy moist mouthful when you come to eat it.  It’s definitely worth the wait!


Copyright Ben Axford 2008.


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