Yesterday, I enjoyed a fascinating encounter with Michel Lucien, the acknowledged expert on pigeonniers or dovecotes. In the 16th century, France had 42,000 of these buildings, constructed in an astonishing range of styles. There are still around 1,700 of them in my department of the Tarn alone.
In the Midi, they had nothing to do with racing pigeons or pigeon fanciers. Their main aim was to produce squabs, or baby pigeons, for the table. A modest pigeonnier with 200 nests could produce 60 a week, making the pigeonnier a reliable and valuable source of fresh meat. The babies spent their short lives (around 28 days) in pigeonholes made of wicker, wood or clay. In addition to their culinary attraction, the pigeons' manure was a highly-prized fertiliser used mainly in the vineyards, and for some owners, this was more important than the meat.