Most gourmets would agree that the French have a point when they claim to know everything there is to know about fine dining and great wine. After all, France has far more Michelin starred restaurants – by a country mile – than any other nation. So, at this point, the French are entitled to rest their case. There’s nothing more to say.
But cultural differences abound, and we Anglo-Saxons do find some of their gastronomical delights quite… well, bizarre, I suppose, is the most diplomatic way to express it.
Eating ortolan: culinary tradition or cruelty?
Take what a restaurant critic once called the “barbaric pinnacle of gastronomic pleasure” – feasting on ortolans: tiny finch-like songbirds.
Which, by the way, is what François Mitterand – looking as if he was prematurely covered in a shroud – chose for his ‘last supper’ when dying of prostate cancer.
The ritual of covering one’s self in a napkin is all part of the experience. Aficionados claim that it helps to concentrate the flavours and aromas emanating from the gruesome dish. But critics see it merely as a means to protect fellow diners from a disgusting and uncivilised ritual – or even to conceal the diner’s gluttony from God.
So, what’s all this about, and, would you like to give this famous delicacy a try? OK, here’s what to do:
- Save up for a trip to la France profonde.
- Find a poacher.
- Negotiate the price. You’ll have to save up for this too because a single ortolan can fetch up to €150 on the black market. And it might be a good idea to have enough to cover the fine of €6000 if you’re caught eating this infamous dish in a restaurant.
- Anyway, buy your ortolan or ortolans.
- Fatten the birds on millet.
- Drown them in Armagnac.
- Remove the feet and feathers.
- Roast in a ramekin for eight minutes.
- The pale yellow body fat must be sizzling when brought to the table.
- Cover your head with your serviette – or shroud.
- Start eating.
- Decide which end to begin with. Some experts recommend starting at the rear, others with the head.
- Place the entire bird into your bouche. Let it rest on your tongue.
- Inhale rapidly through your mouth.
- This cools the bird, although some say its real purpose is to allow the delicious ambrosial taste to flow down your gullet into your stomach.
- Begin chewing.
What to expect
- According to connoisseurs, the first taste is delicious, both salty and savoury with hazelnut overtones and the delicate, incomparable flavour of ortolan fat.
- Crunch the fine bones, as you would barbecued sardines.
- Some gastronomes have indicated that bone splinters in the mouth will cut into your gums, soft palate and mouth releasing a small quantity of your own blood. This mixes with the rich gamey flavour of the ortolan’s intestines resulting in a greatly enhanced and heavenly taste experience.
Chew diligently, cracking bones, and masticating the liver, heart and other inner organs. The tiny lungs, saturated with Armagnac from its drowning, will burst onto your tongue in a heady, liqueur-charged climax that some say is nothing less than orgasmic.
- Experts will assure you that when you finally have to swallow, you’ll regret the end of an incomparably delicious, sensual and divine taste experience.
- Now, back to your ramekin.
- Select your next ortolan.
- Repeat the above sequence.
You might like to enjoy this unique event with something like a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Or do you know a better drop of red – one that won’t take you so long to save up for?
Would you eat an ortolan (if it were still legal)? Are some French foods simply too far outside your comfort zone, or do you think you should always try new things? Tell us what you think about this and other controversial French delicacies.
1.’Emberiza hortulana’ drawing by Wilhelm von Wright, via Wikimedia Commons
2.’Un gourmand’ by Henri Brispot, via Wikimedia Commons
3.’Dégustation d’ortolan à la provençale’ by Marianne Casamance, via Wikimedia Commons
4.’Ortolan bunting’ by Vitalii Khustochka via Flickr
5.’Emberiza hortulana’ drawing by Johann Friedrich Naumann, via Wikimedia Commons