They weren’t always called pigeons, of course.
No: once, before supermarkets and gastropubs and Agas and shrink-wrap, they were called by a completely different name. Time was, when folks ate pigeons out of necessity and each kill was not a cull but a preface to a mediaeval feast.
Back then, in mediaeval times, they called them culufres: or culvers.
These days, in Britain, the pigeon is simply a pest. In cities and towns where junk food is disposed of in public places, the pigeons eat everything available, hoovering it up like a vacuum, and they are obese, and waddle painfully around on sugar highs, sporting dishevelled feathers and taking outrageously long to get on the wing.
But back then, pigeons were as lean and desperate as the human population.
And as we face the coming of the Autumn and Winter here in England it is easy to forget, with our pampered modern existence, just how hazardous it could be simply finding enough food to get through the winter.
Mediaeval summers could be broadly plentiful. Crops might yield plenty to eat and livestock could live out their days in the fields.
But the winters in England have always been grim dark affairs, and they could be desolate indeed for the people who lived between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the light of the Renaissance. Animals were costly to feed during the winter, and so Autumn and harvest would be accompanied by the screams of slaughter: carcasses were salted and stored. There was no way of knowing whether the meagre supplies laid down in October would last until April when the sun warmed once more.
But there were always pigeons.
Even at the worst times, it was possible to attract culvers to warm, dry places to shelter. A dovecote was not just a pretty decoration to adorn a millionaire’s mansion. It was a way to make food when there was none.
But dovecotes were luxuries for the upper classes.
Which brings me to the strangest puzzlement of a place: a curiosity which clings to the rock of the Gower Peninsula in Wales, baffling historians as it has for centuries.
Its name is the only clue we have to its purpose: It is called Culver Hole. It does not run obediently and horizontally backwards but strains upwards, tall and thin like a stringy old man clinging to the cliffs near Port Eynon.
And the strangest bit of the whole business is that Culver Hole is walled in, with openings provided. Inside, it has several floors and treacherous flights of stairs, so that it is obvious that man once used it for his own purposes. But local lore has nothing to say about how it was used. Man has built this extraordinary cliffside limpet, named it and forgotten he ever cared for its existence.
So I’ll tell you what historians surmise, shall I?
Make a warm cavern on the cliff and you make a home for hundreds, even thousands of Blue Rock Pigeons.
Blue rock pigeons are like rats: they can breed all year round. Quickly. Dent their population and they’ll have the discrepancy corrected in a trice, generating pigeon after pigeon ad infinitum, there in the dark treacherous farmed shelter of a culufre cave.
Have you ever seen a recipe for mediaeval pigeon pie? You have to make a coffyn: a tomb of robust pastry which might be thrown away or eaten depending on how desperately hungry you are.
You couche the fowle in the coffyn, then take mary harde yolks of egges, throwing in reysons of coraunce, prunes, hole clowes, hole maces, canell and saffron. And lay thyme about them as thou thinkest goode. Then strew about them this: dates, mary and reysons and then close the coffin with a lydde of the same past and putte hit in the oven.*
Culver Hole: a pigeon farm. A place for food. The people of the Gower must always have been sleek and well-fed, surely?
- This recipe comes from a fifteenth century cookery book, Harleian Manuscript 4016, Edited by Thomas Austin, Oxford University Press, 1964