Only in France? how to eat an ortolan – not for the fainthearted!

MyFrenchLife™ - - How to eat an ortolan - ortolan - French delicacies - gastronomy - ortolan bunting

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? MyFrenchLife™ - - How to eat an ortolan - ortolan - French delicacies - gastronomy - gourmand

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:

MyFrenchLife™ - - How to eat an ortolan - ortolan - French delicacies - gastronomy - shroud


  • 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.

MyFrenchLife™ - - How to eat an ortolan - ortolan - French delicacies - gastronomy - ortolan bunting


  • 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.

MyFrenchLife™ - - How to eat an ortolan - ortolan - French delicacies - gastronomy - paintingChew 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.

Image credits:
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

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Daniel Taylor Jun 27, 2017 at 12:07 PM - Reply

    Sounds like a horrible thing to actually chew and digest. I couldnt stand the bony feel in my mouth I think.

    • Ray Johnstone Jun 27, 2017 at 2:17 PM - Reply

      Bonjour Daniel Taylor, Thanks for your comments. I think I agree with you, although I’ve never had the ortolan experience myself. Luckily I only chose to WRITE an article about this strange practice. And don’t tell anyone, but I’m not very fond of foie gras or oysters either, although my wife would kill for both. Amicalement, Ray.

      • Keith Seay Apr 12, 2021 at 2:15 AM - Reply

        Well written. Watching Succession brought me to the interwebs to research this dish. I am big on texture (avoiding the slimy) and don’t think I could handle this. My most adventurous meal so far is chicken hearts at a Brazilian bbq.

  2. Susan Saladino Feb 20, 2021 at 5:19 AM - Reply

    egregious cruel capture and preparation which is why it is illegal……

    • Ray Johnstone Mar 25, 2021 at 5:30 PM - Reply

      Thanks Susan,
      You’ve got a point. But many would say it’s in the eye of the beholder. Only dedicated vegans (I’m not one) can claim their diet is unique in not causing any cruelty to any bird or animal. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my article.

      • Len Oct 27, 2021 at 1:11 AM - Reply

        A vegan diet does indeed involve the death of many animals. In fact many more!
        Consider a grain crop; It produces a rodent population explosion. They are destroyed or maimed in the machinery, or left to starve, at harvest. I remember as a boy my uncle grew one field of oats on his farm in W Ireland. After the horse-drawn mower cut the oats I saw many frogs chopped up or missing legs. No abbatoir pre-slaughter stunning for them!
        Some cattle grazing the same field not only enhance the soil instead of destroying it, but far fewer deaths result. Now a Vegan might say a Steer’s life is worth many times a mouse’s life. But is it?
        The mouse & the steer may have different views on that judgement.

        • Jen Nov 14, 2021 at 5:29 AM - Reply

          Do you genuinely believe the livestock you eat were fed by letting them gently graze on a field? They weren’t. They were fed with industrial grain feed harvested by machine farming, and a lot more grain goes into a portion of meat than you’d consume yourself in one sitting.

          • Richard Nov 18, 2021 at 3:02 AM

            Hi Jen, it does depend on where you get your beef. In the UK, cows are reared outdoors and eat grass during the summer and silage in the winter. This is usually supplemented with dry feeds such as cereals and protein feeds with added vitamins and minerals.

  3. Joe V Mar 22, 2021 at 10:23 AM - Reply

    On my trip to France we found a poacher who would send us captured Ortolan’s next business day ALIVE for $300. We have hosted several Ortolan Bunting dinner parties at $500 a plate here in NYC. They’re amazing!

    • Ray Johnstone Mar 25, 2021 at 5:42 PM - Reply

      Bonjour Joe V,
      Thanks for reading my article and for your comments.
      You will doubtless have notice that my tongue was firmly stuck in my cheek when I wrote it.
      All I can think of to say is that many would be amazed that people would pay that price to eat one of our tiny endangered feathered friends – and that it’s illegal in France.

    • Alex G Jul 31, 2021 at 1:46 PM - Reply

      Hi there. Just out of curiosity, because I am writing a book, how did you cook them, exactly?
      Did you oven roast low? Did you set aflame in a dish? Thanks

  4. Marcus Todd Aug 13, 2021 at 1:08 PM - Reply

    Thank you for your article, Ray. The TV show “Billions” brought me here. I have traveled a fair amount and I am an adventurous eater, always willing to try anything. I love foie gras and oysters. One of the stranger things I’ve tasted is ox throat while I was in provincial China. I would certainly love to try ortolan. Amitiés!

  5. Andy Oct 26, 2021 at 8:18 AM - Reply

    I bet it’s bloody delicious…!..I wonder if this has come down from the same Roman culinary delights of larks tongues in aspic and dormice roasted in honey…??

  6. candi Mar 3, 2022 at 12:48 PM - Reply

    Interesting article on the Ortolan bird. I was watching the movie Gigi where this dish was the topic of discussion. I’ve never heard of it and wanted to know more. I found your article on this dish and I’m now a wee smarter. Thank you. ???

  7. Dixie Mar 31, 2022 at 9:23 AM - Reply

    Have you read the book entitled Songbirds?
    Set in Cyprus, by Christy Lefteri. A novel Worth a read.

  8. gn Oct 15, 2022 at 9:27 PM - Reply

    “Fatten the birds on millet”
    – I’m guessing you do this, because you are also cleaning the bird’s gut and intestinal tract.
    You do not gut and clean the bird prior cooking.
    No thank you.Feces is feces, no matter what.

  9. Kay Snyder Dec 9, 2022 at 4:19 AM - Reply

    The musical film Gigi gives a delightful lesson on the proper way to eat ortolan.

  10. Fredrik Feb 26, 2023 at 2:04 AM - Reply

    Thanks for the insightful and well written article. As a Norwegian biologist, I still find it incredibly sad that these endangerd animals that we strive so hard to protect in our country here in the north, still ends up getting eaten when visiting our friends in France.

  11. Steven Trebellas Leek Oct 9, 2023 at 4:02 PM - Reply

    Let the frogs eat frogs prepared like Ortolans!

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