Pigeon houses (palomares in Spanish) have been a unique feature of the Castilian landscape since Roman times. In the provinces of Zamora, Valladolid, Palencia and a corner of León — an area known as the Tierra de Campos — a typical image is of a tawny, red-roofed palomar as the focal point of a pancake-flat sea of wheat. Up until very recently, palomares have been an important cornerstone of the Castilian economy. The pigeons raised within them served as food (an important source of protein in lean times; see recipe below), while their droppings were a much-sought-after fertilizer known as palomina, so renowned for its richness in phosphates, that tonnes of the stuff travelled across the peninsula to the orangaries of Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast.
Palomares come in all shapes and sizes. They can be round or square or rectangular. They can be plain or elaborate, with some resembling Arabic palaces or oriental pagodas. They can be white, dun or any of the colours along brown’s spectrum. In fact, there are no two alike. The only thing they all have in common are that they are always topped with hand-made, curved roof tiles the classic terracotta colour of Castile.
The exact method of construction of a palomar can vary from area to area, builder to builder, epoch to epoch, but generally the base of the walls is always formed of stone (to avoid rising damp), on top of which is a layer of poured adobe, with the remainder being constructed of adobe blocks. Brickwork makes an appearance to provide ornamentation and the red colour of these venerable bricks and their shiny texture contrasts nicely with the earthy tone of the adobe. Palomares always have a door (sometimes hobbit-sized!) to allow access to the owner — and for the pigeons a number of points of in- and egress (usually under the eaves). Inside are can be three or four concentric walls containing the moulded adobe niches in which the pigeons roost. An efficiently designed palomar can house hundreds of birds.
In spite of the practice of raising pigeons for food being almost universally discontinued, there are probably thousands of extant palomares in the Tierra de Campos, albeit in various states of disrepair. A particular palomar‘s good or otherwise state of preservation reflects the owner’s attitude to the past, tradition and even farming ethos. Staunch traditionalist farmers proudly maintain their palomares and the repointing of brickwork, replacing of roof tiles and remoulding of the adobe can be something of a hobby (or obsession!). For other farmers, the palomar is a nuisance, an obstacle for the tractors sowing seeds or combine harvesters gathering the corn. Shamefully, not only have many farmers let their palomares go to rack and ruin, but there are some who have pulled a perfectly good one down in order to have an extra fraction of a hectare’s harvest of wheat.
There does exist a system of grants whereby a farmer can receive financial assistance for restoring a ruined or semi-ruined palomar. In my opinion, however, as well as this carrot there should be something of a stick. The Spanish equivalent of a preservation order should be placed on these structures and their upkeep should become mandatory. In the long term, a rural economy such as Castile’s that only lives off wheat and alfalfa is not sustainable. Tourism will have to become part of this region’s bread and butter for it to prosper into the future. Since Castile cannot offer sol y playa (sun and beach) like Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the focus will have to be on the region’s strengths — history, culture, gastronomy, landscape and nature. The palomar and even the pigeon as a gourmet foodstuff could become cornerstones of the tourist industry in the Tierra de Campos. Pigeon pie anyone!
Pichón Casero (Home-made Pigeon)
Ingredients (serves four):
8 large mushrooms
2 cloves of garlic
1 small glass of white wine or shot of cognac
1 teaspoon of paprika
Some flour, olive oil and salt
Once the pigeons are plucked, the heads and feet removed and the birds thoroughly cleaned, any remaining feathers or hairs are singed off. The pigeons are then fried in a little olive oil until golden brown and added to a large pot to be stewed along with the onions, carrots and garlic. The mushrooms are sautéed. As the carrots, onions, garlic and pigeons stew, the wine or cognac is added according to taste.
When the vegetables are good and soft the pigeons are removed and chicken stock and flour are added. This mixture is brought to the boil and salted to taste. This is then puréed. The pigeons are opened down the middle and, with the mushrooms, placed on the puree and served sizzling hot.