Eating an Ortolan – A French Tradition that is Better Forgotten?


A French Dish that is Trying to Make a Comeback

French gourmands know that the traditional way of consuming an ortolan is to cover one’s head with a sizeable napkin – shielding one from the eyes of God while eating the melodious avian. Unfortunately, if the practice is left to certain French chefs, they will applaud its return.

Demanding a Reversal

Four cooks as well as the 18-Michelin star French chef, Alain Ducasse, have demanded that a partial reversal be made on the ban that prevents people from killing and selling the ortolan songbird. In an interview with a French food publication, Ducasse said that the ban “undermines centuries of tradition . . . and [encourages the selling of the bird on the black market].”

An Expensive Bird

The tiny bird, which is about as big as the fist of an infant, weighs approximately an ounce but can be purchased for as much as £100 by any food connoisseur who is willing to buy the bird outside the confines of the law. One of the inventors of nouvelle cuisine, Michel Guérard, says he would like to serve the bird dish at least once a year.

Governmental Intervention

The ortolan, which is a member of the bunting family, has not been sold for restaurant use since the latter part of the 90s. However, the ban was not stringently enforced until 2007. The government intervened at the time after poachers supplied large quantities of the bird to the country’s restaurants.Ortolan

Image Pierre Dalous, Wikimedia

Illegal Trapping

According to the country’s League for the Protection of Birds the number of ortolans dropped 30% from 1997 to 2007. However, the endangerment of the bird is not the only controversy. The way the songbird is caught is looked at with disapproval as well. Traps are set during the migratory season when the little birds fly to Africa. The ortolans are kept in cages where they are given grains to make them bigger and therefore more consumable.

An Ongoing Argument

Some French chefs discount the cruel practice, saying that is no different than fattening up a goose to serve up its liver for foie gras – yet another French dish that has raised the ire of Europeans.

Gluttony Has No Bounds

Gluttony has no bounds when it comes to the ortolan as the birds are cooked with their head still affixed. The total bird is eaten, both the head and bones. Nevertheless, some diners rave about the bird’s hazelnut flavor after the eating experience.

A True Aficionado

French President Mitterrand would probably agree as he ate not only foie gras and capon but two ortolans as well at a dinner he hosted in 1995 on New Year’s Eve. He was one of the true lovers of the bird dish.

Time and Traditional Will Tell

As it now stands, the return of the tradition is still up for debate.