Anthony Bourdain, in his book, Medium Raw, describes a life-altering meal he was lucky enough to be invited to. Many great chefs were invited to a top flight restaurant for a late night dinner. No names are mentioned as they are about to taste forbidden fruits. I will not discuss the preliminary food other than to say that the dishes were old French standards, largely out of favor in today’s “hip” culinary environment.
But, the main course, the reason they were invited in the first place, was something called Ortolan. Francis Mitterrand ate Ortolan for his last meal as he was dying. It is illegal in the US and illegal to sell even in France, although you can make it and eat it. The only reason it is illegal is that the bird is a threatened species. The ortolan for this New York dinner was smuggled in, according to Bourdain.
So, what is this life altering meal? It is Ortolan, a small bird in the bunting family. It is a traditional French delicacy going back to Roman times. The birds are caught in nets and placed in cages covered to make the bird think it is night all the time. They are fed millet, oats and figs and gorge themselves as they feed at night. When they are two to three times their normal size, they are killed, plucked and roasted.
Bourdain describes this orgasmic meal as follows:
The flames in the cocottes burn down, and the Ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet-first into our mouths – only their heads and beaks protruding.
In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy the experience, I’ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. It’s hot. So hot that I’m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out – like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I don’t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss od rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. There’s a vestigal flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating dekicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I don’t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I’m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly – ever so slowly – to chew. 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 wonderous ancient flavors: 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.
Yes, I know this sounds barbaric, but is it compared to any other meat we kill, cook and eat? Or is it just too far out of most people’s comfort zones? Think about it.
Just for fun, I decided to see if Ortolan was in any of my cookbooks that focus on French cuisine. The only one I thought might have it was my 1961 edition of Larousse Gastronomique. I was right. I don’t have the recent updated versions of Larousse (and I don’t want one), but I would be surprised to find Ortolan.
In the 1961 Larousse, there is an extensive entry, with the following recipes:
- Ortolans a la Brissac
- Ortolans a la Careme
- Ortolans in cases a la royale
- Cold Ortolans
- Ortolans a la landaise
- Ortolans a la perigourdine
- Ortolans a la provencale
- Roast Ortolans (this is the recipe used for the dinner described above)
- Ortolans on skewers
Would I go out of my way to try Ortolans? Probably. Would I try them if offered? Hell, yes.