Monday, April 4, 2011
Without a doubt, France is a country full of culinary tradition. UNESCO even decided to recognize it last year as "part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity." Many of their specialities are very well known, such as their wine, cheese, mustard, and bread. Many common French meals are known to and eaten by people who have never set foot in France, and perhaps have no desire to do so. However, today I am going to discuss a little known tradition which could actually lead to prosecution in modern France.
When I was studying French culinary traditions this past winter to prepare myself for my tours, I came across one that seemed almost unbelievable in terms of its cruelty and perhaps its originality as well. The Ortolan is a small bird that is native to most of Europe, France included. As is the case with almost any creature that has once been walking or flying on its own in France, it has found its way to the dinner table. In the past, eating Ortolan was fairly common in the Gascogne area of France.
There are a couple of ways to prepare the bird, but I'll give the most graphic way first. Once these birds are caught with a net, they are kept alive in a darkened room or space, such as a shoebox. These birds are constantly fed, and as they are nocturnal feeders, they continue to eat and eat as they are not exposed to sunlight, or really any light for that matter. Once they are deemed fat enough, they are drowned in Armagnac and then cooked whole in the oven. Once brought to the table, they are eaten in one bite, with everything except the head and the feathers.
An alternate way of preparing the bird is doing so on a spit, cooking it solely in its own fat. I took this from a French book on traditions, La France Retrouvée, which mentions the fattening of the birds, but not their method of slaughter. This lets the reader come to their own conclusion on how to execute the bird, though I doubt many would have thought on their own to drown the birds in liquor.
When eating an Ortolan, the tradition says to eat it in silence with a napkin placed over the head. One reason given is that the bird is quite juicy and can potentially explode when bitten. Another reason I found was that it is said that the napkin allows one to get the full aroma of these birds, as they are apparently quite flavorful. However, my favorite hypothesis that I came across was that the diners in the past felt ashamed of eating the bird, and thus were hiding from God.
In France, it is illegal to catch these birds or pay for them, but oddly enough, it is still legal to eat them. Hypothetically, if a friend cooked an ortolan for you, you could eat it without getting in trouble. However, if you happen to pay money for the meal, then both parties could potentially go to jail. Therefore, it won't be likely that one will find these on a restaurant menu in France anytime soon (nor will it be served on my tour).
Every now and again, certain culinary traditions, both in France and worldwide, give the need to try and forget what exactly you are eating, or how it was prepared (foie gras would be another great example from France. If you like foie gras, yet don't know how it was made, I probably wouldn't bother looking into it if you happen to be squeamish with food). If the rare opportunity arises and you find a roasted Ortolan on your plate, I can't tell you what to do, but no matter your choice, the outcome of the experience will no doubt be memorable.