Midi Delights: Roast Pigeon & Pigeonnier Tales

Midi Delights: Roast Pigeon & Pigeonnier Tales

Thousands of pigeon towers, or pigeonniers, are dotted across the landscape of the south of France. Starting in the 16th century, they were built in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and styles. Arguably, no creature has had a more beautiful home built for it than the pigeon. This excerpt, taken from ‘Menu from the Midi’ by Colin Duncan Taylor, traces the role of the pigeonnier and provides a traditional recipe for roast pigeon.

One morning after breakfast, I nearly step on a pigeon. It bobs its grey head and hops across the gravel of our driveway. It makes no attempt to fly away. It does not peck the ground. It seems untroubled, but unsure of what to do next.

There are always pigeons on our land, on our roof, on the roof of the church next door, but invariably they fly off at our approach. Something else strikes me as odd about the grounded bird at my feet. As far as I can judge, it is no smaller than the other pigeons I see, but its feathers show no signs of dust and dirt, or wear and tear from fights or parasites. Its pristine plumage reminds me of a fresh shirt straight out of its cellophane wrapper.

I take a couple of paces towards this immaculate bird. Half-heartedly, it retreats under a bush, and when it allows me to pick it up, I conclude it must be a juvenile which has foolishly or accidentally fallen from its nest before it has learned to fly. For several weeks, I have been hearing parents and their young gurgling and cooing high up in our cypress tree and in several parts of our long hedge. As well as pigeons and many other birds, our garden acts as a transit lounge for several neighbourhood cats. The felines leave us reminders of their presence and their carnivorous habits in the shape of dismembered birds and the occasional bloody carcase of a rabbit. I have no doubt that if my baby pigeon scuttles around on the ground for much longer, a set of deadly claws and sharp teeth will bring its short life to a dramatic end.

I put the bird back under the bush and call Donna. What can we do? The pigeon doesn’t move. It is defenceless, ignorant and alone in a hostile world.

‘René has a pigeonnier,’ says Donna. ‘We’ll give it to him.”

Pigeonnier can be translated as pigeon tower, pigeon loft, pigeon house or dovecote. In our neighbour’s case, it means a circular aviary, two metres high and slightly less in diameter. René treats his pigeons like his chickens: he closes them in at dusk and lets them out at dawn. I pick up the pigeon for a second time. Its feathers are smooth and soft and I can feel its heartbeat. It remains calm despite my handling, and we cross the road and find René working in his vegetable garden. I introduce him to the prospective new resident of his pigeonnier. He takes the bird and turns it this way and that.

‘Qu’il est mignon!’

Strictly speaking, this means, ‘Isn’t he cute!’, but I learned long ago that context is everything when it comes to translation, and I suspect his words are more likely to mean, ‘Won’t he be tasty!’ I know the true purpose of his pigeonnier and it has nothing to do with pigeon fanciers or racing pigeons. This little pigeonneau is likely to become a squab, the English name for a baby pigeon when it is served up for dinner.

With the exception of old country folk like my neighbours, the culinary importance of the pigeon before the 20th century is largely forgotten. City-dwellers now persecute them as vermin and the thought of eating a rat with wings fills most people with disgust. In the past, pigeon meat graced the highest tables in the land. Consider two banquets given in honour of Catherine de’ Medici. At the first, 400 squabs were served to the guests, and at the second, hosted by the city of Paris in 1549, the menu included 99 squabs, 99 turtle doves and 99 chickens in vinegar. Squabs were also purchased regularly for the king’s table during the reigns of her son-in-law, Henri IV, and the gluttonous Louis XIV.

Serving up baby pigeon on such a regal scale required a more structured approach than waiting for them to fall out of their nests like the one in my driveway. To this end, pigeons were not only eaten by the aristocracy; they were raised by them too. Writing in his seminal work on agricultural science published in 1600, Olivier de Serres tells us: ‘He whose home is provided with a pigeon tower, a rabbit warren and a fishpond will never see his household short of food because these things will provide him with fresh meat as surely as a well-stocked larder…and being supplied with such foods, he will be able to feed his family nobly and offer a fine table to his friends without having to put his hand in his pocket.’

In most parts of France before the Revolution, keeping a pigeonnier was a privilege reserved for the nobility, and its permitted number of occupants was linked to the size of the owner’s estate. Unlike René’s pigeonnier, which has room for maybe a dozen birds, his titled predecessors erected ornate towers capable of housing a population of hundreds and sometimes thousands. The pigeonnier became an ostentatious display of the owner’s wealth and social status.

In the 17th century, France had around 42,000 of these constructions. They were concentrated in regions where grain was abundant, most notably in Normandy and the Midi. Today, my department of the Tarn is one of the best places to appreciate the richness of this architectural heritage in terms of sheer quantity and diversity of design. In the early 1970s, an enthusiast called Henri Astruc carried out a detailed survey and found 1,700 pigeonniers in the Tarn. Some had already fallen into ruin, and others have done so since, but most of the ones counted by Monsieur Astruc remain intact to this day. To find out how these buildings ensured a constant supply of roast pigeon, and to understand the ingenuity of their design, I travel to Lombers, a historic village with strong Cathar connections on the road from Castres to Albi. I have a rendez-vous with Michel Lucien, an acknowledged expert who has spent the last 30 years photographing and writing about the pigeonniers of the Midi. He has agreed to take me inside one of the largest examples in the Tarn, and to give me a tour of his private museum. I suspect I shall finish up buying another one of his books.

A pigeonnier on the A20 Bois de Dourre motorway rest station (aire) © Colin Duncan Taylor

The most beautiful of homes

Although they all serve the same function, pigeonniers come in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and styles. This, and their predominantly rural setting, makes them a photographer’s dream.

The enclosed part of the structure which housed the pigeons may be supported on four or more wooden stilts or stone pillars, various numbers of stone arcades, or the entire structure may be built of stone from the ground up. The most common shapes are square, round, hexagonal and octagonal, and roofs may be domed, barrelled, or have anything from one to four slopes and a turret or two. The permutations are almost limitless when you include other examples that have been built into a gatehouse, the tower of a château, the loft of a farm, or which doubled up as huts for shepherds and their flocks.

Some common designs have been named after the towns around which they predominate, such as Castres, Gaillac, Saint-Sulpice or Toulouse. On the telephone, Michel Lucien told me we would be visiting an example in the Toulouse style, also known as pied de mulet, or mule’s foot.

We meet in the centre of Lombers on a hot afternoon. After less than a minute’s walk, we turn into a dead-end street called ‘Impasse du Pigeonnier’. At around eight metres high, our destination towers above the bushes and trees in a small garden where the grass is waist-high, except for a freshly-cut strip cleared by Michel with his scythe shortly before my arrival.

He tells me this is one of the largest pigeonniers in our area, certainly the largest that is in a fit state to enter without undue risk. In the mid-18th century, it was built on the remains of a watchtower that had formed part of the village ramparts.

We admire the building’s exterior and Michel explains its functionality. A mule’s foot pigeonnier is a square tower built in stone from the ground up, topped by a roof that slopes gently in a single direction. ‘Upside down mule’s hoof’ would perhaps be a better description, although for me this visual analogy is gravely compromised by a feature which allowed the pigeons to come in and out of their home. The roof descends from its highest point, drops vertically by about a metre, and then continues its slope. Most of the vertical wall between these two levels is built from wooden planks, and these are pierced by two rows of holes, around 30 in total. These openings have been carefully sized to allow free access for the pigeons while keeping out sparrow-hawks, owls or other birds of prey. The lower section of roof provides a spacious plage d’envol, a launch pad which the birds used for take-off, landing or resting.

However aesthetically pleasing a pigeonnier may be, it is important to remember that even the decorative elements served a function. Halfway up the wall of this one, the tower is surrounded by a belt of protruding bricks called a randière. This, and smoothly rendered walls, kept out one of the pigeonnier’s most dangerous enemies: rodents such as rats and dormice. If these hungry beasts got inside, eggs and hatchlings were doomed. Some pigeonniers employed other defences such as slippery bands of glazed tiles or sheets of polished zinc, and the Castres style incorporated a stone shaped like an upside-down mushroom at the top of each pillar to keep climbing rodents at bay.

None of these ingenious defences were effective against the pigeon’s most deadly predator: a man like Michel Lucien armed with a key or a ladder. He slides the rusty key into the ancient lock, opens the wooden door, and ushers me inside with a proprietorial air.

Although this pigeonnier is owned by another resident of Lombers, it was Michel who raised the money to save it from ruin.

The ground floor is empty apart from an iron ladder which rises through an open hatch in a wooden floor just above our heads. Light floods into the upper part of the building through the entry holes and illuminates two types of nesting box which hang from the walls. Michel points at one made from pottery. “Originally, there would have been around 200 nests like that, but when I first came in here, only one was intact. I took it away to my museum for safety and had these replicas made by a potter in Albi.”

This type of nest could easily be confused with a plant pot, 25 centimetres in diameter with its flat bottom fixed to the wall. The second type is a wickerwork basket, again 25 centimetres wide, and each one hangs from an iron spike embedded in the stonework. Michel tells me about other types made from wood, and about pigeonniers with more noble pretensions where you will find true pigeonholes – niches built into the structure of the walls. Whatever the style, each nest was large enough for a pair of adults and two pigeonneaux.

A pigeonnier by a lake in Tarn © shutterstock

“How did they take the squabs from their nests?” I ask.

“With those.”

Michel points at two rickety wooden ladders propped up against the walls on the first floor. I inspect their wooden rungs and think of the men whose job it was to collect a basketful of pigeonneaux for dinner while several hundred parents flapped anxiously and perhaps aggressively around them. Maybe a particularly alarming visit like this inspired someone to design a rotating ladder system mounted on a central pivot. Olivier de Serres explains how this solution can provide the owner with quick and easy access to all the nests. Clearly it was at its most effective inside a round or octagonal pigeonnier of the grand type built by the aristocracy, but there is a square one at Villemur-sur-Tarn which has a rotating ladder too.

We leave the pigeonnier and take a short drive to the museum which Michel has created inside a converted barn next to his home. The walls are lined with photographs, exhibition panels, and a variety of nesting boxes and other pigeon memorabilia. Other displays include a collection of decorative sculptures rescued from the highest point of various pigeonniers, and some wonderfully detailed models. The room is dominated by a half-scale replica of a pigeonnier in the Castres style, the design I encounter most often near my home.

Michel turns on a television screen, and I am able to admire image after image of pigeonniers, each one seemingly unique.

“Why were they all so different?” I ask.

“The availability of local materials played an important role. For example, the Castres style typically used local stone from Navès and roof slates from Dourgne. Supporting the pigeonnier on pillars and leaving the ground floor open meant they weren’t taxed. The whims of the builder were another influence, and one neighbour copied another.”

“Did the style change over time?”

“In the Tarn, they started with cylindrical military-style stone towers, built by nobles who had money and access to cheap labour. Square ones with stone arcades at ground level became popular in the mid-17th century, and next we see some small round ones. Most of the Castres type, square and mounted on four pillars, date from the 18th century. The pied de mulet was easy to build and it became a common style after the Napoleonic wars. None were built after the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century, most pigeonniers had been abandoned by humans and birds alike.’

Michel’s film continues to roll. Some of the photos are familiar from his website, but I am overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of images that pass before my eyes. I scribble down the names of a few particularly impressive or unusual examples, but I struggle to keep up.

“When did you start photographing them?” I ask.

“About 30 years ago. Back then, many were in a pitiful state, but my photos allowed me to stage several exhibitions and conferences, and people became more and more interested and eventually I was asked to write my first book.”

Michel’s writing generated extensive press coverage and television work, and he has helped tourist offices devise circuits for visitors who want to enhance their enjoyment of the countryside by seeing different styles of pigeonnier. His reputation grew, and before long so did the number of people seeking his advice and help with restoration projects.

“Plenty of them are still in ruins, but people are paying more attention to them now. They are an exceptional part of our architectural heritage, and for me, no creature has had a more beautiful home built for it than the pigeon.”

I have seen some handsome stables, and the memory of rustic pigsties filled Jean-Luc Malinge with nostalgia, but I cannot refute Michel’s statement. Once you have seen a few, the pigeonniers of the Midi are instantly recognisable, but each one is different. It is easy to become an obsessive pigeonnier spotter, particularly when travelling by foot or bicycle. A few days ago, I found one in a village called Saïx. It was built in the Castres style, but the builder had seen double and mounted it on eight pillars instead of four. A while later, I spotted another fine example in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and was lucky enough to be shown inside by the owner. All four walls of M. Albouy’s pigeonnier are lined with pigeonholes fashioned from clay and mounted on a bamboo framework, 300 in all.

Parc du Pigeonnier, in Colomiers near Toulouse © shutterstock

Recipe – Roast Pigeon

With the help of this Taffarello family recipe, you too can eat like a president, a prime minister, or a 17th-century landowner. If you don’t have someone like Serge in your neighbourhood, and you live in France, you can order a case of squabs online from Les Pigeons de Mont Royal. If it all sounds too complicated, marvel at how Celine does it by dining in her restaurant, or find a gourmet establishment closer to home that offers a similar dish.

Ingredients for four people:

  • 4 baby pigeons
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 3 sweet onions
  • 500 ml of chicken stock
  • 150 g of butter
  • 30g of breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 50g of flour
  • honey
  • 20g of raisins
  • 100g cooked couscous
  • curry powder, salt, pepper, olive oil
  • puff pastry
  • turkey fillet
  • cream.

Note: to follow the recipe exactly, you need to find pigeons from the Lauragais and sweet onions from the Cévennes.

Preparation – the night before

  1. Gut the pigeons, separate the legs from the bodies and set them to one side.
  2. Sauté the legs (with the feet still attached) in oil and butter.
  3. Add the stock and cook on a low heat for 30 minutes. Allow the legs to cool, then debone them, separating the meat from the bone [and the skin which will be used in step 5].
  4. Make a mousse by blending a turkey fillet with some cream and egg white. Combine the mousse with the meat from the legs, the raisins, couscous, honey and curry powder.
  5. Use this mousse to stuff the skin of the legs, coat them in breadcrumbs and set to one side.

Preparation – on the day

  1. For the roasted tomatoes: skin the tomatoes, cut into quarters and remove the seeds. Place them on a baking tray, drizzle with oil and season with salt, pepper, thyme and garlic. Bake in the oven for 90 minutes at 55°C.
  2. For the stewed onions: peel and chop the onions, sauté in butter on a low heat, then leave them to stew for 40 minutes on a very low heat.
  3. For the tartlets: cut out 4 circles of puff pastry, each 10 cm in diameter, and blind bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes at 200°C.
  4. For the roast pigeons: brown the pigeons in oil on all sides, season with salt and pepper, put them in the oven for 5 minutes at 180°C, then leave them to rest for five minutes. Separate the fillets from the carcase just before serving.

Assembling and serving the dish

Arrange the stewed onions and roasted tomatoes in the tartlet cases, then add the stuffed pigeon legs, each with its foot in the air. Either add the pigeon fillets to the tartlet or serve on a garnish of salad.

Note: this family recipe includes one extra step: the juices that remain after the pigeons have been browned should be stored in the refrigerator for 24 hours, after which the layer of fat on the surface should be removed and the juices reduced to make a gravy which is used to decorate the plate. This may be practical if you are a gastronomic restaurant serving roast pigeon every day, but more problematic, and probably less important, for the home cook.

© Adam Goldberg/Flickr

Cover – Menu from the Midi jpg

Colin Duncan Taylor has been living in the south of France for 20 years, and through his books he shares his passion for the region’s culture, gastronomy, history and language. Menu from the Midi explores French gastronomy from the farmer’s field to the dining room table.



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Lead photo credit : A dovecot in Varagnes, Tarn © Colin Duncan Taylor

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