The halcyon days of childhood, those five or so years between the ages of five and ten seem, looking back, a forgotten age of innocence. Summers were endless days of blue skies, fields shimmered in a golden haze, whilst winter nights drew us in, and we roasted chestnuts over an open fire and woke up to fields cloaked in white. Really? Perhaps not – but then sometimes it’s better to leave the past behind us, just remembering the good things.
In certainty, I spent most of those early years living a mile or so away from the ancient village of Moreton, in the Epping Forest district of Essex. In Roman times, the hamlet had been formed at the crossing point over the Cripsey Brook, which connected the route from Great Dunmow in the northeast, to London.
Our house was surrounded by rolling farmland, mostly used for grazing in the 1950s and containing a Bronze Age barrow or two. At the back of the house was a large garden, containing an orchard on one side and well ordered vegetable beds on the other. At the end of a long lawn was a gate that opened out, in my childish eyes, to the land of adventure. If I remember anything it’s running through this gate and down the hill, hair ribbon whipping about my face as I attempted to keep up with my brother. He, at four years older, was always charged with looking after me and of course, did his best to try and lose his annoying little sister. At the bottom was a brook, hung over by ancient willows, which meandered its way through the rolling countryside. It was up this waterway, dress tucked into my knickers, canvas shoes strung around my neck, that I followed my brother, wading thigh high through the clear brown waters. He, with a net in hand to catch any wayward fish and an air rifle cocked on his shoulder to blast at any unsuspecting pigeon or rabbit.
Easily distracted, he would soon leave me far behind as I trailed my hand through beds of watercress, as I watched the antics of energetic water boatmen and brightly coloured dragonflies which zig zagged from bank to bank. Eventually, I would find my brother bent over a pool. Hushed into silence I was instructed to stand very still and not to make a noise as I watched in admiration his attempts to tickle a trout into the net. He was spectacularly unsuccessful at this, although I do remember a large very ugly pike being persuaded into captivity, as it inhabited the water butt outside the kitchen door for weeks. But when the brook broke out into open fields, the net was exchanged for the gun and I was firmly sent back home to be out of the range of my brother’s wandering aim. I didn’t mind this much as I’d rather not have to watch creatures being shot, especially rabbits. I was always quite relieved when he returned empty handed. The rabbits that hadn’t been affected by the scourge of 50s myxomatosis were Darwin’s evolutionary survivors and had developed enough cunning to escape my brother’s pellets.
However, with the addition of a pair of sights to his rifle, and considerable target practice in the garage, wood pigeons became my brother’s sitting ducks. As the great hunter he returned home and presented his offerings to my grandmother at the kitchen door. These offerings were treated with respect, and we both learnt how to pluck and draw these scrawny birds. Fifty years later, I could only have wished my grandmother had been with me watching Mike Daunt, the Bounder in the BBC documentary ‘Bart and the bounder’ skin a pigeon, preparing bird ready for the pot in four simple steps.
Wood pigeon unlike other wild, or game birds are available all year round. So, I do wonder why they aren’t more popular and why they are so difficult to buy, even in rural butcher shops. Fortunately, I managed to track down the Wild Meat Company, an online provider of a wide variety of wild game and meats, and visited their wholesale headquarters in Blaxenhall, Suffolk. They provided me with enough pigeon breasts to make my grandmother’s favourite, pigeon pie. As she didn’t leave a recipe, I’ve adapted one from Valentine Warner.
Feeds four. Preparation time approximately one hour.
160g smoked lardons or bacon rashers, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
6 medium or 4 large chestnut mushrooms, sliced and diced if necessary
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 heaped tablespoon damson jam
1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
breast meat from 2 pigeons
1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
flaked sea salt
ground black pepper
150 ml red wine
150 ml stock (if you have time, use the pigeon carcass to make your own)
2 tsps Worcester sauce
250 g rough puff or puff pastry (I used Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ puff pastry)
1 egg beaten
The idea is to have the contents of the pie ready cooked before you bake it in the oven topped with the pie crust.
In a large frying pan melt 15g of butter, add the bacon lardons and brown for approx two minutes. Then add carrots, celery, mushrooms and onion with the bay leaf, and thyme leaves. Cook all together over a medium–low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have become soft, but not brown (approx.15 mins). Add the smashed garlic a couple of minutes towards the end. Put the contents of the pan in a bowl to one side. Clean out the pan ready to pre-cook meat.
If there is skin on the pigeon breasts pull off as much of it as you can, then chop the breasts into largish chunks, about 3 to 4 per breast. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add some salt and black pepper combining everything together. Toss the pigeon pieces in the seasoned flour until well covered.
Melt the remaining butter in the frying pan and when it is sizzling hot fry the pigeon bits for no more than 2 minutes, turning regularly so as to brown the pieces all over They need to colour quickly as you don’t want to overcook the meat. Cool and then combine the pigeon pieces with the vegetable mix. Fill a 1.25-litre pie dish with the mixture, it should come a little above the rim. If you have a pie funnel, use it to prevent the crust from sagging – I used a ball of scrunched up foil, just for a bit of a lift and the steam to escape. Mix together the stock and wine in a jug, add Worcestershire sauce and whisk in the damson jam until dissolved. Use this to deglaze the frying pan, stirring around to hoover up any bits left – at this point if you have flour left over from the pigeon pieces, you can add here, so as to make a thicker gravy. Taste and if need be season. Let this cool and then pour over the pie ingredients, so that it comes about three quarters of the way up the meat and veg mixture.
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/Gas 6.
Take the pastry from the fridge about 15 minutes before using it. Roll it out on a floured work surface to slightly thicker than a £1 coin and 5cm larger than the pie dish. Brush the rim of the dish with beaten egg. Cut a 2cm-wide strip from around the edge of the pastry circle to cover the rim of the pie dish all the way around. Brush that with egg. Carefully roll the pastry circle around a rolling pin and unroll it on to the pie dish. Make a small slit with the point of a knife to in the centre to allow the pie funnel (if you are using one) to pass through the pastry. Pinch the edges of the pastry to seal, then trim. If you have extra pastry you can make leaves, flowers, etc. My grandmother use to shape convincing pigeon heads that stuck out each side of the funnel. Stick them on with the beaten egg and then brush all over the top of the pie to glaze. Place the pie on a baking tray and put on a high shelf in oven. Bake until top is golden brown and filling is heated through (about 30–35 minutes).