For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets was the eating of the Ortolan. These tiny birds—captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac—were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God. The Wine Spectator, 30 June 1999
Ortolan (Emberiza hortulana) is probably the most famous banned dish in France—banned since 1999 because the tiny song birds were becoming rare.
Yet for many die-hard traditionalists they symbolize the soul of France, especially the south of France, and there are chefs who secretly prepare them. Captured in nets at night, ortolans are kept in a dark room, which encourages them to fatten up before they are drowned in Armagnac, plucked and roasted whole with an olive in their tiny beaks. In the old days, there were apparently some super-gourmets who only ate the olive.
When former president François Mitterand was terminally ill, he made ortolan his last meal on New Year’s Eve and died ten days later.
Images by Marianne Casamance, Pierre Dalous