Why you should care
What other eating ritual involves napkin-draped eaters who elicit semi-orgasmic groans as they crunch on tiny bones?
In one of the most bizarre dining rituals ever devised: A small group of secretive, slightly nervous French gourmets gather in a secluded place, take their seats and, with quasi-religious observation, scrutinize the tiny offering placed in front of them for which they’ve parted with nearly $200.
They lower their faces over the dishes before lifting their napkins and draping them over their heads and faces, inhaling deeply. What follows is a strange symphony of semi-orgasmic groans and the crunching of tiny bones.
This is the prescribed process for consuming ortolans, petite songbirds often referred to as “France’s cruelest food.”
While watching and listening to these gastronauts may be a far cry from anyone’s idea of the perfect spectator sport, it’s the process by which these little birds arrive at the table that has earned them this moniker.
Forget force-feeding geese for foie gras or dunking live lobsters in to boiling water. Ortolans, members of the bunting family and each weighing less than an ounce, are trapped and fattened up on millet while being kept in the dark for a month. Disorientated by the darkness, they eat for 24 hours a day. Once fattened to bursting point, they’re drowned in Armagnac, the brandy native to Landes, in southwest France near Bordeaux, where the birds would normally thrive.
The bird is then roasted for six to eight minutes and served sizzling in its pale yellow fat. The taste is said to be salty and hazelnut-y. There’s a delicate flavor to the fat and a richer, gamier aspect to the liver, kidneys, lungs and heart.
While eating them is not actually illegal, the hunting and serving of ortolans was banned in France in 1999.
Of course, French gourmets say the napkin-as-head-furniture rigmarole serves to capture the wonderful aromas emanating from the dish. Naysayers, however, reckon this arcane practice serves to hide the diners’ shame from a disapproving god’s eyes.
So what’s it really like? “With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors,” drooled gonzo U.S. chef Anthony Bourdain in his book Medium Raw. “There are figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.”
Another celebrity fan was France’s late President François Mitterrand, who insisted ortolans be included in his last meal, along with 30 oysters, foie grason and capon, on New Year’s Eve 1995, eight days before he died. Legend has it he consumed two, when stopping after one is generally considered de rigueur in culinary circles.
While eating them is not actually illegal, the hunting and serving of ortolans was banned in France in 1999, resulting in a thriving black market. In 2007, the French government promised to abide by a European Union directive protecting the ortolan, with a zero-tolerance approach. In the interim, experts reckon the birds were being killed at the rate of 30,000 a year, resulting in a drop in their population of almost one-third.
A group of leading French chefs, including the 18 Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse, has lobbied the French government to partially reverse the ban on killing and cooking ortolans. They say they want the right to cook the bird, even if it is only for one weekend of the year.
We’d bet the songbirds, if given a voice, would vote to uphold the ban.