Thursday, 24 November 2011


From mid-October to the end of November, every Autumn, its hard to find a plumber, electrician or mason. If your roof leaks, you will have to wait until december and, in the meantime, stick a bucket under the offending pipe or roof tile. If you expect the post to be delivered daily and on time, or the mayor to be found in his office during this period, you've chosen the wrong region to settle in because every bearnais, landais and basque male is high up a tree in a Palombière, waiting for wood pigeons to pass.

On the 18th October, the old saying goes "à la Saint Luc... le grand truc!" not only because its Saint Lukes day but also because the wood pigeons or the Palombes start arriving down south on their migration towards warmer climes and this is the "grand truc" or the big thing every local, male is waiting for. The men become feverish and can only be cured by climbing high into a dodgy, wood cabin in the trees, drink industrial rum and wait for these feathered flocks to pass by in their hundreds over the bearnais and basque forests and through the pyrenean mountain passes that they have used for centuries.
The wood pigeons finalise there summer holidays in northern Europe or Russia, fly south to North Africa making a few stops for acorn and corn breaks, between october and december. The basques like to stop them en route by imitating a hawk's attack, throwing "abataris", something like a table-tennis racket but painted white with chalk, at the weary birds who automatically dive lower and end up in a net at the centre of the pass. All very skillful and ambitious but not as intricate as the bearnais....
In front of Mailhos lies a deep forest of beech, oak and chestnut. The regular inhabitants of this dense undergrowth are the wild boars, hares, birds and deer but right now the voices of tipsy males can be heard echoing over the valley even though their nearest position is over a kilometre distance.

Within the forest, the men have built these crazy cabins, 15m high in the tallest of trees accessible only by a rickety staircase, rising at an angle of 90°, hammered together with the barest of nails and wood and not for the faint-hearted, vertiginous lady that I am.

As a female of the species, my presence is not welcome in these boys cabins where they reimagine their childhood playing in huts and dens so Jean Francois visits each year the three palombieres that surround us to enjoy a few bottles of the local Jurançon early in the morning.

In Bearn the hunting principle is very different to their Basque neighbour and a little more fair to the birds. The principle here is that the dodgy cabin is high above the other trees, well-camouflaged, and facing north so the palombes can be seen arriving at a distance. The canopy of oaks surrounding the cabin have been shaved and snipped  by Jose who, over the past 4 months has climbed a few hundred oaks to cut the upper leaves so that visibility is perfect for the boys.

Once the palombes are seen arriving in the distance, the men manouver decoy birds, both false and live (their own pet wood-pigeons - trained for years in the art) with up to 20 metres lines, like puppets from the camouflaged cabin, to attract the passing flock and encourage it to land on the canopy, which they like to do for a little rest on such a long and difficult journey. The decoys or pet birds fly in the air and then settle back on the trees which passing palombes see as an invitation to imitate.

(for example the above bird's, only task is to go back and forth from one tree to another)
Once in sight of the cabin, the men become warriors and the birds are shot. 
Personally I have many problems with any hunting involving men, dogs and wild animals and birds and the palombes numbers have dropped from 8 million ten years ago to 2 million today but Jean Francois does insist that they shoot very few birds and if the hunters didn't exist maybe we wouldn't have any more forests.... Good point so lets sing in praise of hunters!

Every year I receive my present of 4 feathery palombes from hunterman Marcel and once Jean Francois has plucked and cleaned them enough to make them look like anonymous poultry, I cook them.
In France and particularly here in the Bearn, they love to cook them in wine sauces and mop this up with lots of bread as the meat is scarce. My recipe just has to be the simplest of all...

Spiced Wood Pigeon Breasts with Steamed Savoy Cabbage

4 people

4 Palombes/Wood Pigeons
1tbs Cognac
100g Butter
2cm of fresh Ginger
1tsp Aniseed
1tsp whole White Pepper grains
1tsp Coriander seeds
50g old White Bread
Salt and Pepper

Heat the oven to 220°/7 Pound the aniseed, coriander,  ginger, pepper and a tsp of salt together with a mortar and pestle. Mix the spice mixture into the butter with your fingers. Pound the bread separately into crumbs and mix into the butter mixture, again using just your fingers. Place the mixture between two layers of greaseproof paper and roll out thinly. Keep flat and in the fridge.
Gut the wood pigeons, keeping the livers. Spatchcock them both using the kitchen scissors a press them out flat with your hands. Season well.
Melt 80g of the butter in a small baking tray just big enough to hold the birds, skin side up.  Spoon a little of the butter over the pigeons and put in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove the birds and keep warm. Keep the butter and juice to the side.
Fry the livers in the rest of the butter and add the cognac and a little water. Stir until reduced by half and then pass through a strainer. Add the cooking juice and butter and stir until well integrated. Season and keep warm.
Once the pigeons have cooled down, remove the breast from the bones. Cut 4 pieces of the spiced bread mix and place on each of the breasts. Grill  a minute or two until golden.
 Serve on a bed of steamed and seasoned cabbage with the sauce poured over....


  1. Gorgeous in all, comprehensive particulars.

  2. you are an engaging author. I can't wait for the book.
    I have never even heard of a wood pigeon, I have only heard about the crazy French.

    Love love