Ortolan is a small, fragile songbird native to large parts of Europe, especially France. The average size of this little bird is about the size of your thumb. It is traditionally considered to be a luxury delicacy in French haute cuisine. It was served almost exclusively to wealthy connoisseurs until 1999, when it became illegal to hunt and eat the bird in France.
Part of the reason why the consumption of Ortolan has become so controversial is the way these birds are prepared. They are kept in darkness for weeks or are blinded, which causes the birds to gorge on grains and grapes until they become extremely fat — the key to them being so decadently delicious. The birds are then thrown alive into a vat of Armagnac brandy, in which they drown and are marinated, before they are finally roasted. Ortolans are meant to be eaten feet-first and in one bite, except for the beak. Diners traditionally veil their face with a napkin before consuming the bird, a practice explained by the Telegraph’s Harry Wallop as intended “partly to keep in all the aromas of the dish, partly to disguise you having to spit out some of the bigger bones. But, mostly, because diners wish to hide the shame of eating such a beautiful creature from the eyes of God.”
But the barbaric way in which the bird is prepared is not the main reason eating Ortolans are currently illegal, however. The main reason is because they are an endangered species. They were declared as such by the European Union in 1979, but France took two whole decades to take any action in this regard.
Since then, many prominent French chefs petitioned to change legislation to allow them to get the birds back on their menus, but to no avail. Nonetheless, as many as 30 000 Ortolans are sadly still illegally captured and sold in the south of France every single year, even if fines as high as £4,800 can be served to a hunter or trader who is caught. These birds are then cooked and served at private, highly secret, exclusive and illegal dinners — not only in France, but even as far off as places like New York City.
If these beautiful birds are to survive, however, we’re going to have to do something about the fact that one in every ten who pass through southern France on their annual migration to Africa are killed by hunters. If not, the reality is that these special creatures will, sadly, not continue to be with us for very long.