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.

Ortolan

Ortolan

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:

Eating Posture

Eating Posture

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.

Roasted Ortolan

Roasted Ortolan

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.


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28 Comments on Ortolans, Anthony Bourdain and Larousse Gastronomique

  1. henry says:

    you are a poor nerd without any knowledge about killing a whole species

  2. Q says:

    Forget Henry, great post

  3. Henry Voigt says:

    “Zoophagy” is an obscure word that means the eating of animals. It might help if we were to appropriate its adjectival form “zoophagous” to describe the eating of endangered species, still a worldwide problem. When it came to their defining moment, Anthony Bourdain, and his French-chef pals, chose their art over respect for nature, always a poor choice. It seems to me that eating an endangered species should fall outside everyone’s “comfort zone.”

  4. Clark Wolf says:

    I’m sure Bourdain and the author of this post should be congratulated for pursuing aesthetic values at the expense of mere moral constraints.

    How could you possibly think that eating endangered animals is cool?

  5. Virgil says:

    To all you on the endangered species bandwagon, I am not apologising, even though I support efforts to conserve biodiversity. However, a couple of things should be noted. One, a number of animal and plant species are on engangered lists not because they are actually endangered, but for political reasons. In addition, many of the so-called regulatory provisions put in place to protect endangered species do nothing of the sort and are, again, the results of politics and/or misguided thinking.

    Specifically, Ortolans ARE NOT an engangered species worldwide. They have been over hunted in France to be sure, but I don’t think even in France they would warrant endangered species status under US guidelines. Let me ask you, would imported Ortolans be OK? You can disagree with how they are hunted, fed, prepared and eaten, but all animals we eat are killed and prepared in some way. Ortolans are no different.

  6. Anita says:

    Very good reply, Virgil. I concur. A most interesting and very descriptive blog post about this delicacy.

  7. mike says:

    I would not eat any animal or foul that is on an endangered list no matter how wonderful the taste is…2 thumbs down for this part of the book…

  8. […] Most shameful guilty pleasure? Roasted ortolan bunting […]

  9. brady says:

    bourdain would put a boiled pig rectum down his throat.being drunk 24/7 helps with this of course.i think being a food expert means being a little particular,a fact of which he is not.he can go to a country,eat out of a trashcan,and then wax philosophical about the delightful aromas.and on another note,as civilized humans who also happen to eat meat,we should have a modicum of taste.i realize we kill a cow and eat it but do we blind it,force feed it,and drown it in liquor?and eating birdshit??
    i think not.ive smelt birdshit.maybe bourdain likes the wonderful aroma?his take that every living thing on earth is simply here for filling his pickled face is misguided and somewhat selfish.whats next for bourdain…going to china to eat half alive fish/(if he hasnt already)filling your belly need not come with a side dish of cruelty.as for his love of everything organ,if he wants to eat sauteed eyebals be my guest.

  10. Mike says:

    Interesting to note that the “protectors of nature” are becoming increasingly aggressive, these past ten years. Anyways. Great post. I doubt if I will ever eat it, or want to eat it, but it is great to read about it. Somehow, reading about ortolan is enough. I do not need to taste the real thing anymore. Thank you.
    The more it is objected against, the more interesting it becomes, does it not?

  11. Virgil says:

    Mike,
    It is especially so with the Ortolan, which really isn;t an endangered species, that part is really a moot point and I have no clue why it would be banned in the US. How many people would actually eat it? Of course, I am also against banning foie gras. I wonder if people who eat veal know how that is produced? I doubt it. Or factory farmed chickens? With Ortolans, tradition and history trump all else in my mind. THanks for the post!

  12. Corynn says:

    How do you know the Ortolan isn’t endangered everywhere? I’ve been looking for more information about Ortolans and I honestly can’t find much that isn’t related to people either defending Bordain or condemning him. Wiki lists them as “least concern,” but wiki isn’t always right.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say things along the lines of, “producing veal is animal torture, so people don’t have a good reason to be mad about eating any specific other species.” There are a lot of people out there who are aware of how awful animals are treated in factory farms. There’s organizations that are getting us all involved in trying to stop it. Bans on foie gras and on “crating” are happening all over the US. We’re not just a bunch of morons who feel bad for one little bird being eaten, but ignore where our fried chicken come from. There’s a tendency to try to make it look like people who are interested in animal rights are all hypocrites. Most of us are actually very well informed people who are very interested in where our food comes from and put a lot of effort into making sure it’s as cruelty free as possible.

    Personally, I’m a vegetarian, though I don’t believe that all people should become vegetarians. I believe it’s possible to have excellent culinary experiences without causing undue suffering or contributing to the harm of a threatened species. I haven’t learned enough about Ortolans to decide if I think what Bordain did was in poor taste. But, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that if we were talking about an endangered species, then people should leave it well enough alone and let their culinary curiosity go unsatisfied.

  13. Krista says:

    I was watching Gigi and got to the part where Aunt Alicia is trying to teach Gigi how to eat them. I had never heard of ortolan so I was interested about them and if they are actually eaten bone in. This was a very interesting post, thank you very much to the author of it! The comments have also been interesting and entertaining. As far as the validity of eating them, I’m not going to comment, I don’t have much of a stand. I love eating meat and chickens. Respect also to those who don’t eat meat, my Dad became a vegetarian and its a lifestyle I couldn’t do but he and my step mom are very happy with it. Again, thank you for the post!

  14. Bonnieg says:

    I’m sure eating cat shit could be made to sound glamorous and
    Mindless idiots would eat it too..

  15. YeahWhatever says:

    Why do these types of arguments always come down to the lowest common denominator for the people trying to justify them? The “is it bad compared to…” statement is what I’m talking about. We can use that justification for anything, because there is always something worse. Do whatever you like to the birds — at least we’re not cannibalizing one another! The moral relativism is ridiculous.

    Do you believe that force feeding a bird before drowning it in brandy is a cruel and unnecessary practice? If so, it doesn’t matter what some people do to cows or chickens. If you believe it’s cruel and you do it anyway, you’re a sadist or a hypocrite.

    And for the ever enlightened Virgil over there: Yes, this is 2012. People know how veal is produced, care how it is produced, and many refuse to eat it. Other people’s ignorance have nothing to do with your own choices. Take some personal responsibility.

  16. Tom says:

    My year 2000 edition of Larousse Gastronomique contains a description for the preparation of Ortolan. The ubiquitous Jeremy Clarkson ate them in somewhere in France for an English TV show. He covered his head with a napkin and everything, seriously.

  17. Phil Graham says:

    The Ortolan Bunting is a migratory bird of which hunting has been illegal in France since 1999. Nevertheless, between mid-August and mid-September 30,000 buntings are captured in the Landes department and sold to be eaten in the south-west of France. The LPO (League for the Protection of Birds, like the RSPB) mounted a campaign this month to disrupt the poachers. Article is in French but plenty of pictures. http://www.lpo.fr/actualite/op.....rance-zero

  18. […] There is a french preparation of a a bird called the Ortolan. It is about the size of a parakeet. you catch it in the wild, blind it with pincers, fatten it up […]

  19. […] was introduced to this subject by being shown an excellent example of awesome food writing. CookingWithLittleBuddy.com showcases Anthony Bourdain’s recollection of this “orgasmic […]

  20. […] (Even though Bour­dain stops talk­ing about the meal on the show, he goes into MUCH more detail in his book Medium Raw. You can find the entire Ortolan Bunting food excerpt on Cook­ing With Lit­tle Buddy’s blog post “Ortolans, Anthony Bour­dain and Larousse Gas­tronomique.”) […]

  21. Ace hole says:

    …all of you Eco-jerks just shut the f&#€ up…

  22. Longdream says:

    Songbirds: enchanting.

    Silly, big-assed food whores who eat songbirds: on their way to the third ring of Hell.

    If there’s a next time, I hope you eat some West Nile.

  23. vegard says:

    Go vegan. Then you won’t ever have to hide from God.

  24. Marc Mielke says:

    They reproduced much of Bourdain’s description on last week’s Hannibal. Dr. Lecter saw no need to hide from God either.

  25. Kevin l says:

    My new goal will be finding the suitable suptitude for this delicacy. Even pigeon taste better when drowned alive. I guess the trapped blood between the flesh makes the taste extraordinary. I do not draw my moral line on the process of killing, killing is killing. I respect every bit of flesh the creature has given me.

  26. Bill says:

    Yes waxing philosophical with a napkin on your head ? Unbelievable no Im not pissed about eating endangered species. Im amazed that a bunch of epicurean douchebags had napkins on thier head wilst doing it. Some chef somewhere is laughing his ass off. And they have been doing it for Years like that hahahaha! Hey Tony I got bbqed duck guts slow smoked and deep fat fried but you have to wear a scuba mask while you eat it to truly enjoy the experience

  27. […] Anthony Bourdain describes it as a “life-altering” meal in his 2010 memoir “Medium Raw.” Recipes for ortolan appear in the 1961 edition of French cookbook Larousse Gastronomique, and the […]

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